Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman is a fast-paced fantasy story for readers over the age of 12, set in an original fictional world inspired by Chinese and Japanese culture, complete with magic and palace intrigue. In particular, its treatment of gender variance offers a rich opportunity for readers of any age.
(Warning: the following analysis of gender in Eon: Dragoneye Reborn contains "spoilers" about the book.)
Originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 31, 2010.
In the Empire of the Celestial Dragons there are 12 male dragons in the zodiac, and each year, the current dragon selects one 12-year-old boy to be the human representative of its power. Girls are forbidden to work with dragon magic; in fact, a female Dragoneye would be seen as "a travesty of everything natural in the world" (244). The magically talented 16-year-old slave girl Eona, therefore, is carefully disguised as the eunuch Eon by her master who trains her as a Dragoneye candidate. For some reason, although a girl may not engage in dragon magic, a eunuch's participation seems to face no opposition. Eon faces the additional challenge of having a severely damaged hip joint while applying for membership in a magical group that is heavily based on swordsmanship. To everyone's surprise, Eon is selected, but not by the current dragon of the zodiac. He is selected by the mysterious Mirror Dragon that had not been seen for 500 years previously. With no current Dragoneye to take Eon under his wing as an apprentice, Eon is immediately liberated from his slave status and named a Lord and full Dragoneye. He must hide the secret of his true gender from everyone else in the palace or risk immediate execution. The power-hungry Lord Ido already has his reasons for wanting to remove Eon as a threat.
Eunuchs – that is, castrated men – are sometimes referred to in this novel as "Moon Shadow" or by the variants "Moon eunuch" or "Shadow Man". The moon simply represents female energy and passivity, opposite the sun which represents male energy and aggression. (229) It is unclear whether the designation of Moon Shadow suggests a social status that is higher than simply "eunuch". At the beginning of the book, the author defines "Moon eunuch" as "a boy castrated before puberty for family advancement and opportunity" (42), a moniker that might have been intended to distinguish them from those eunuchs castrated in war or by accident, such as the "Trang cattle-men" who were "gelded" as punishment for an uprising (19). However, in this fictional world, it would be difficult to know, upon meeting a eunuch, the family circumstances surrounding the original reason for his castration, nor is it especially easy for the reader of the book to ascertain the exact social status of any given palace eunuch. It seems that Moon Shadow is simply a more poetic way of indicating castration and does not convey any additional information about status or identity.
While "castration melted the bones and muscles of manhood into soft curves" (95-96), some eunuch bodyguards manage to build masculine muscle by taking a steroid that is described in the pre-scientific culture as the "Sun energy" drug. (188, 275) The power-hungry Lord Ido, an intact man, also takes the drug to enhance his strength. In addition to a medicinal tea to stop his menses, Eon takes the steroid, not primarily to masculinize his body (after all, he's successfully passing as a eunuch), but because he thinks it will aid his faltering dragon magic. What he does not realize is that his dragon, the rarely seen Mirror Dragon who is apart from the 12-dragon zodiac, is a female dragon and is drawn to Eona as a female. Eon's use of the Moon-suppressing and Sun-enhancing drugs are actually driving the dragon further away. (404)
After Eon's former master and mentor is assassinated, the emperor appoints two protectors for him: Lady Dela, a male-bodied person who lives as a woman, and Ryko, a eunuch. (305) Neither they nor the emperor know that Eon is really Eona. Ryko distrusts Eona when he learns her secret, wondering aloud whether the "strange union" of a woman with a female dragon will bring good or evil upon the household. (433)
Lady Dela's sex is referred to as "Contraire". While there are tribes where such a person is considered to have two souls and is revered as a good omen, the royal court is not such a culture. A servant explains that Lady Dela "is tolerated by the court because it is the emperor's pleasure." (139) She is not fully accepted. One villager approaches her curiously, "sneaking a wide-eyed look at the court Contraire," a situation she handles "gracefully". (399) She has suffered violence, revealing to Eon that the character for "demon" was once carved in the skin over her heart, and warning that if others were to believe him to be a eunuch who sometimes wore women's clothes, they would hurt him in a similar way. (243)
While valuing eunuchs in their role as palace functionaries, the culture disparages them – and other people with unusual genders – as human beings overall. As a result, these gender minorities tend to support each other and to interact in special ways. In one case, Eon reports: "The Shadow Man was watching me, his expression strangely tender. He must have thought me a brother. I looked away from the undeserved fellowship." (125) In another case, when he is talking to Lady Dela, he wonders to himself how a Moon Shadow (castrated male) would ask a Contraire (transsexual woman) if she has had her "male parts" removed. (246) In a separate conversation, Lady Dela chastises Eon for asking whether the eunuch Ryko is "a Trang cattle-man," which, she tells him, "is none of your business". (247) And although Lady Dela fancies the affection of Ryko, she dares not act on her desire, sighing: "A eunuch and a Contraire. How the gods would laugh". (418)
There seem to be some popular misconceptions in this fantasy world about whether eunuchs can have sex. When a prince suggests to Eon that they could visit the concubines, he immediately blushes and says: "Of course, you would have no interest in such things. Forgive my vulgarity." Eon agrees, believing that "a Moon Shadow would not continue the conversation." (204-205) Later, when the eunuch Ryko takes Lord Eon to the concubines, he more knowingly claims that the guards do not think it unusual because "They know there is more than one way to skin a cat." (260)
Similar to the eunuchs of wealthy households in Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights tales, the eunuchs in Eon are ubiquitous and active but they mostly perform quiet, background actions. There are "etiquette eunuchs" who provide advice on court behavior. (160, 175) Eunuchs bow and nod (176), pull out chairs (178), usher guests (179), motion and are motioned to (180, 190), are followed (190), quietly dismissed (193), whispered to and waved away (180), stand on guard nearly motionless while observing passersby (204), rest their hands on their sheathed swords (119), distribute jade tokens to favorite poets at banquets (178-179), bear royal goblets of hot cocoa and other refreshment (131, 190), and hold parasols over the nobility (296). Sometimes they have larger roles as royal physicians (130) and guardians of magical treasure (205). Aside from the bodyguard Ryko, the eunuch with the largest speaking role is the scholar Prahn, the prince's tutor (197-207), but even Prahn has acquired the quiet mannerisms of a eunuch: "Prahn nudged his foot into the eunuch kneeling beside the bureau...The eunuch scrabbled across the floor on his knees..." (206-207)
The author's website attributes most of her knowledge about Chinese eunuchs to the popular book on the subject by Taisuke Mitamura. Some of her more sensational details are easily recognizable as inspired by the unforgettable details of that book: the high mortality rate from castration due to obstructed urinary tracts (246), the metal implement used to aid urination that the eunuchs tied to their sashes (148), and the eunuch who served as "food taster" to discourage attempts to poison the emperor (168-169).
Ryko distinguishes himself from the "groups of shrieking women and cowering eunuchs being bludgeoned to their knees" (466) in one particular battle scene when he kills a guard with a knife. When Eon then tries to prevent him from rushing into a dangerous house, Ryko says, "You think me too soft to do my duty?" (467) This is against a cultural background where eunuchs "are expected to keep the sweetness of childhood." (147)
The mysterious genders of the characters in this book –"Moon Shadow" eunuch, "Contraire" transsexual woman, and a young woman pretending to be a Moon Shadow – create an extra layer of complexity that magnify their deceptions and intrigues. It is not hard to imagine much of this taking place in the imperial Chinese court on which the fantasy world is loosely based.
The book is Alison Goodman's Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (New York: Viking, 2008). Page numbers above are based on the uncorrected proof copy. The sequel, Eona: Return of the Dragoneye, was released in 2011.