Character Study: Deka

I’ve heard a few complaints from readers about the fact that Deka’s role in The Kingdom of Gods isn’t advertised in the jacket copy. That’s my fault, partly; I do get a say in the copy, and it seemed more important to me to emphasize the novel’s plot rather than its relationships. All things considered, these books are marketed as fantasy, not romance, and Deka is more important as a love interest than he is as a mover and shaker in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Not that love interests are meaningless, mind you. Since love and desire are key drivers of plot in most ancient epics — and As You Know, Readers, ancient epics were my inspiration for these stories — it seems only proper to give the love interests their due spotlight here, if not in the marketing.

So, Deka. I intended from the beginning that he and Shahar would reflect some of the issues present in multiracial families — which, as I’ve mentioned here before, has been a part of my own family experience. Probably a part of most American families’ experiences in some way; race is an ever-present undercurrent in this society.

In my mother’s family, for example, my grandmother was half white — but wholly black, per the “one-drop rule”. Her facial features were closer to the African than the European template, so I doubt she could’ve “passed” as white, but she was so pale that she burned at the drop of a hat, she had blue eyes, and her hair was of a peculiar variety that I’ve only ever seen in mixed-race individuals: very black, mostly straight, so shiny that it always looked wet. Because of her looks, she didn’t have to take a job as a maid or nanny, like most black women of the time; she was able to get a job working in a (white kids’) school cafeteria as a cook. It didn’t pay much — she supplemented her income by working as a seamstress, and the family ate a lot of produce from her garden when times were tough — but it had a pension, which allowed her to stay independent until she died, and pass on a home as inheritance to one of her children. She married a black man who was similarly pale and straight-haired, who could pass — and possibly as a result of this, he got an even better deal: a union job down at the docks. In those days, union jobs were usually reserved for white men. (Granddaddy is rumored to have said, “They never asked if I was black, so I didn’t tell them I was.” The original Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell!) Between these two strokes of fortune, my grandparents were able to build a house (not buy it; in those days banks usually wouldn’t make home loans to black families) and send their kids to the local HBCUs. (While white universities became available to my grandparents’ and parents’ generation around that time, HBCUs were safer, and there was a better chance of a student there actually getting an education instead of death threats, etc.)

This is all relative fortune, note: the family was just poor instead of dirt poor, compared to their neighbors. But I share it to illustrate how even slight differences in racial composition, identity, and perception can matter in a racially-conscious society.

Shahar and Deka are like my grandmother and grandfather: both multiracial, but Shahar is able to pass for full-blooded Amn and Deka isn’t. Shahar, therefore, is more fortunate, at least on a superficial level: she’s the accepted heir, gets a nicer room and more toys, gets told at every turn that she’s beautiful and clever, and is named after the family’s greatest heroine. Deka, meanwhile, is named after the family’s most infamous failure: the Dekarta of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, on whose watch the Enefadeh broke free. He gets treated like most multiracial children in Amn society: barely acknowledged, blatantly treated and thought of as “lesser”, and eventually rejected. Also, he probably couldn’t help but notice that his sister’s fortunes improved once he was no longer around to remind their relatives that she wasn’t as “pure” as she looked. Deka’s a little worse-off than Grandma and Granddaddy, because he doesn’t know what his visible race is for most of KoG; this deprives him of someone to identify with. Instead all he knows is what he’s not: Amn.

Spoilers for The Kingdom of Gods from here forth.

Since we don’t see the eight years between the children’s oathtaking and Sieh’s awakening as a “mortaling” teenager, there’s a lot that went on in both of the twins’ lives that I could only imply, not describe in detail. I wanted Deka in particular to reflect a 180-degree change — because in my mind, he’s spent the past eight years going through his own flavor of racial identity development. (This is my favorite book on RID theory as applied to black and white children, as I’ve mentioned here before.) To greatly simplify: in RID theory, kids (and sometimes adults) come to an awareness of race and what it means in their society via a series of common stages. Stage 1 is usually a sharp, dramatic encounter with the inequities of race — something shocks them into noticing that some people get treated differently based on how they look. Stage 2 consists of the individual dealing with that realization, trying to figure out what this means for them personally. Stage 3 consists of the individual trying to re-form a sense of place in the world, sometimes predicated on what they’ve learned about race in the meantime — racism and stereotypes as well as positive and neutral information. Lastly — in another stage or two, depending on the theoretical model you apply — the individual shakes off these externally-applied conceptualizations of race and either embraces their own idea of what it means to be [race]… or punts, refusing to even think about race anymore if they can help themselves. Some people go beyond this and deny that race and racism even exist. The “punt” reaction usually happens only if a) the individual’s conceptualization of race is so negative or threatening to their sense of self-worth that they can’t accept it, or b) they have enough privilege that they don’t have to think about it.

Aaaand I digress. Sorry, I slip into psych mode without even thinking about it sometimes.

There are complicating factors in Deka’s case — namely a) he’s gay, and b) he’s an Arameri fullblood. But a) doesn’t mean as much in the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where polyamory and same-gender relationships are literally divine, and as Sieh implies, where reproduction can be dealt with via “vials and squeeze-bulbs” for those wealthy enough to afford a scrivener’s assistance. And b) grants Deka tremendous social status in the wider world even if he is something of a black sheep within the family — so that even if people did have a problem with him being gay, they wouldn’t dare mention it to his face. So let’s return to race.

Deka’s stage 1 racial slap-in-the-face was the moment he woke up, after Sieh’s transformation into mortality caused the collapse of the Nowhere Stair and the children’s injury. By the time he awoke, members of his family were already openly agitating for his execution. And though Deka was probably a bit young to understand the concepts of scapegoating and profiling, let’s just say he got the idea pretty quickly. (The first stage usually happens in early childhood.) The quintessential embodiment of this horrible realization was his own beloved sister, who argued for him to be exiled from Sky for the possible rest of his life. She was trying to save him from death — but Deka was 8 at the time, and even bright, precocious 8-year-olds don’t usually see things in terms of the big picture. So Deka, who already knew he was different and somehow inferior, then found himself abandoned by everyone he knew and the only person he loved, and essentially dumped in a strange place far away to rot.

If Deka followed the usual path of racial identity development, he was probably very, very angry for awhile. This is not a rational thing, but it’s certainly common and to a degree unsurprising: when a person faces hatred and rejection for being different, they often blame themselves for being different. They wonder why they have to suffer such misfortune, why they have to be [different thing], and why the world is so unfair. This makes them more prone to believing all the ugly things the world says about “people like them”. The hatred eventually turns outward, and they start to hate the world for its unfairness… but they keep hating themselves, just a little.

So I imagine Deka was quite the little bastard when he first arrived at the Litaria. He was a brat already, being a typical fullblood child, but he got worse. Most likely he was obnoxious, disobedient; maybe he acted out in class (which given that the classes were in magic was probably dangerous). There was certainly a time when Deka refused to consider himself Arameri, rejecting the people who’d rejected him; he hints at this to Sieh when they first meet again. But there were probably a few other non-Amn kids at the Litaria — once upon a time scriveners were Amn by definition, but by the time of KoG the scrivener’s college has diversified somewhat — and Deka may very well have been welcomed by them, since they shared the common experience of trying to fit within a place where they so obviously stood out. He might have found a mentor or two — someone who saw the pain beneath his angry-brat exterior, and tried to help him work through it. He wouldn’t have been able to trust all of the people he met; people are people, after all, and some people are assholes. (And he was still Arameri; at least some of his friends would’ve been out to use him.) But he could at least trust some of them. That gave him a support system within which he could begin to see that there were some good things about himself and “people like him”. Maybe he had his first romantic experiences with other non-Amn boys. Maybe his non-Amn friends helped defend him from bullying by the Amn kids. Maybe he also met some Amn kids who weren’t bigots; there are quite a few, outside the Arameri. It probably wasn’t perfect — but regardless, thanks to these friends, gradually Deka found the strength to develop his own identity apart from “Arameri black sheep” or “that brown kid”, or whatever others continually tried to impose on him. And this in turn helped him begin to see the bigger picture — including the fact that Shahar’s apparent betrayal, and perhaps even his mother’s, may well have been acts of love and not hate.

Throughout all this, however, Deka had an agenda. The one constant in his life aside from Shahar, after all, was Sieh: the god who showed him both kindness and cruelty, but ultimately more of the former than the latter. The beautiful boy who gave him his first lesson — a warning of the immediate future — in how power could be used and abused. I tried to make it clear in KoG that Deka pretty much developed his first crush on Sieh as a child, as children are wont to do. But over the years, and especially in those times when Deka had only memories to ease his loneliness, the crush didn’t fade. He began studying Sieh, using the lore accumulated by his fellow scriveners and that of his family; this is the reason he maintained some ties with Sky (namely with Ramina and Morad, who tried to look after him on Remath’s behalf). Through this study he began to understand what he’d already observed of Sieh: his whimsical nature, his omnipresent rage, the fact that Sieh’s smiles usually covered less-than-pleasant feelings. To some degree he fell in love with the idea of Sieh — which Sieh realizes, and challenges him on during tKoG.

It wasn’t just his infatuation with Sieh that drove him, though. Deka is, in every way except racially, an Arameri fullblood: intelligent, ambitious, arrogant enough to think himself entitled to the world, vicious enough to actually try and claim it. Which is why once Deka had done “the amazing” — created a new scrivening art, graduated as the youngest scrivener in history (yes, even younger than Viraine) — he set his sights on “the impossible”. Namely, he tried to find Sieh.

Fortunately he didn’t have to, since I don’t think even Deka would’ve lasted long if he’d managed to find his way inside Nahadoth. Afterward, the fact that Sieh didn’t come to him for two years probably cooled Deka’s ardor somewhat, or at least made him be more of a grown-up about it than an infatuated boy. Having heard through the grapevine that Sieh was growing up, and being well aware of what that would do to Sieh — Arameri scriveners had plenty of opportunities to observe Sieh in his various older states during the Enefadeh’s long incarceration, and like Yeine in 100K, they noticed that it changed his personality — I imagine Deka had time to reconsider his feelings for Sieh. Perhaps he debated whether it was safe or wise for a mortal to love a god. But as Deka himself says in tKoG, some part of him knew it wasn’t safe… which is why that part of Deka caused Sieh to become mortal. A mortal loving another mortal is another matter altogether.

So I imagine Deka spent much of those two years planning Sieh’s seduction, for when they finally met again. And since, when the moment came, he was still a typical eighteen-year-old underneath all his power and eccentricity, he didn’t waste any time putting that plan into motion.

I imagine also that, as a god, Deka’s personality traits will refine themselves further, and align along specific lines. What those lines will be is hard to say; he’s so young at the moment of apotheosis that even as a human his personality isn’t fully-formed yet, let alone his godly nature/affinity. Still, I see him as the Itempas of the new trio, at least initially. He’s implacable, demanding, focused. If he wants something, he gets it, and if it’s not available, he believes he’ll get it eventually. Given Sieh’s generally chaotic nature, this might make Deka a perfect match for him — or eventually they might be, like Nahadoth and Itempas, both lovers and enemies. Or it might be Shahar whom Deka ends up squaring off against. She’s not much of a mediator (actually, Sieh seems to have fallen into that role by the end of tKoG), and she’s also his direct competition for Sieh’s affections. I should note that the newly-created Three are similar to the old Three, but in the end they’re not the same, and the universe they end up creating — our universe, as Sieh implies by addressing the reader — will be an altogether unique place. They’ve got their hands full, building it and learning to deal with each other. Deka, being Deka, will almost certainly rise to the occasion.

ETA for clarity. Pre-coffee, sorry.

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9 Responses »

  1. I think something similar to RID must happen with the development of gender and sexual identities, too. I definitely experienced sexism as a kid and was outraged by it, but as a teenager, alas, went the punt way of deciding that as I was a tomboy with mostly male friends, sexism didn’t apply to me, and therefore didn’t apply to anyone else, either. (Rooting through my old files the other day, I found an excruciatingly embarrassing document titled ‘Feminism Is Dead’ – evidence of the fact that my teenage self had just read Virginia Woolf, who said the same thing, without applying so much as an iota of critical thought. *winces*)
    It’s taken me until very recently to come to my senses. And I’m glad that I have. But the fact that it was necessary still freaks me out a bit, if I think about it too much.

    Also: I love these character detail posts, because I love seeing the logic behind things. It’s like pulling the case off a clock to watch all the pretty gears do their thing :)

  2. Foz,

    Oh, yes, there’s a LGB Identity Development theory, a Women’s Identity Development Theory, a (specifically) Trans Identity Development theory… pick an “inborn” identity, there’s a development theory for it. :) Some aren’t as well-researched as others — RID has been around the longest, and there’s been lots of studies on it especially in education. But if you look, you can find them all.

    I went through something similar re my own gender identity development. For many years, as a child, I wouldn’t read anything I considered to be “girly” — no fantasy (because somehow that was girly in my head), no SF by women. Then, thankfully, I grew up. :)

  3. Funny, I had figured Deka as “the new Naha.” He has his inscrutable sibilant magic, he refuses to be bound by Shahar’s sigil, he unties the laws of matter when the trio moves Echo. Plus, I thought Sieh had named Shahar as the will of the group in that moment.

    But I guess the larger question is: do you see this new Three falling neatly into the same overarching roles of Naha/Tempa/Yeine? Or does the balance of their natures (i.e. the composition of their universe) settle differently because of who they are?

  4. Question for you:

    Does Deka become an individual god? I think he does, but I just wanted confirmation. I felt like the “We” could have meant three individual awarenesses making up one god. I like it better if they are three distinct gods.

    Love the last book and the entire series!

  5. SSB and Melody,

    Answering both together because they’re similar questions. I intend for the end of The Kingdom of Gods to be a little open to interpretation, so I’m leering of answering too specifically. But yes, Sieh and Shahar and Deka are three new, individual gods; Shahar and Deka were elevated to that status by their bond with Sieh, and Sieh just naturally became a god because that was the next stage of his life. He’s been on the brink of this transformation for centuries, frankly; there are hints of it in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But since gods are immortal and there’s no such thing as a “natural cycle” or puberty for them, it took a little something more to push him into “adulthood”. Why the trigger was this particular pair of mortals is something only the Maelstrom can explain, if It ever bothers. More likely that question will never be answered — one of the inescapable uncertainties that Nahadoth has built into the universe.

    But the new Three are not the old Three, and they won’t follow the same pattern of Order/Chaos/Balance. And since I intended to suggest that they are the gods of this universe, all you have to do is look around at all the different forms that mortals have conjured for the divine — as Sieh suggests in the coda. We dictate the shape our gods take, after all. So pick a god, any god — or none at all, if you prefer. That’s what they are.

  6. Hello,

    I just started to read Kingdom of Gods. I realized the new trinity immediately. Also I don’t mind being spoiled.

    I have to ask this writing question. I noticed that you are part of a writing group, is being in a group help you as a writer?

  7. SSB, further clarification — Shahar was the will of the “merged group” when the maskers attacked Sky. But it was Deka’s will, when they were children, that made Sieh into a mortal, and it was Sieh’s will at the end of the story that made all three of them gods like himself. This is what happens whenever the Three merge — the new Three as well as the old Three — they form a single consciousness, and within that the strongest will usually drives their actions. (Generally it has to be something that all three are willing to at least consider, or be not vehemently opposed to.)

  8. J. C.

    Yep, my writing group is a great help. They read drafts of my novels when I finish them (if there’s time), and my short stories, though I’ve been remiss in not writing many shorts lately. It’s crucial, I think, for a writer to have a group of like-minded individuals, who have similar goals and are at a similar level of artistic development, who will frankly examine your work and tell you what’s wrong with it, what’s right about it, and how to make it better. If you can find the right writing group, I highly recommend joining one.

  9. I never thought of SFF as girly growing up, but I did find it extremely welcoming for me as a girl reader: the whole genre felt like an equal playing field, and perhaps because I wasn’t part of the SFF community, it was, perhaps ironically, one of the places where it never, ever occurred to me that sexism might exist. By the time I’d discovered SFF as a teen, there were so many female authors writing awesome female characters – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Melanie Rawn, Anne McCaffrey, Sara Douglas, Ursula le Guin, Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce – that I was always really puzzled and frustrated when other people, most of them adults or older than me, expressed surprise that a girl might like “that sort of thing.” I was always like, ‘What are you talking about? All my favourite authors are women! All these books have female characters!’, and put the disconnect down to non-SFFians just not knowing what they were talking about. The idea of SFF as boys’ club never once crossed my mind, and if someone had talked to me then about the male gaze or discrepancies between how men and women were promoted or any of that stuff, I’d have thought they were just agitating for the sake of it.

    What’s that old line? ‘The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’ Only for ‘devil’, read ‘sexist culture.’