Hi Cassie. This is about Lady Midnight, not Lord of Shadows, so I may be a little late but anyway. People who hate Kieran are constantly bringing up the fact that he tried to convince Mark that he being with his family again wasn’t real in that note he sent him and I really can’t understand why he did it? What was the true purpose of that note? Can you please tell me? I love Kieran, and I don’t like when people are unfair with him. Thank you.
That’s interesting – I have to admit it never really occurred to me people would be confused by what that note meant/was about. The below contains spoilers but not major ones, so skip if you are avoiding even mild spoilers.
First I should say it’s fine to dislike a character. There is no character I have written or read about that someone hasn’t disliked for some reason. If that character is in a love triangle, multiply that by 100,000,0000000. (That may not be a real number but you get the point.) I’ve been thinking a lot about liking and disliking characters and the act of reading with empathy, which I will get to more at the end of this essay. Right now I’m just going to talk about what that note meant, and the way in which Kieran is a complicated sort of character generally.
We read for lots of reasons. To see our own experience reflected (a “mirror” reading experience) and also to see experiences that are not ours. (A “window” experience.) One of the interesting things about seeing the judgements of Kieran is the expectation that he is meant to act like a mundane human being (one who has dutifully read not just many relationship-help tomes but also all the Shadowhunter books – thanks, Kieran! – and is well acquainted with the Blackthorns despite never having met them). At very least, he is expected to act like a Shadowhunter, and not at all like a Faerie – despite the fact that a Faerie is what he is, and as a Faerie, he is not like us. He does not have typical human cultural beliefs about love (in good and bad ways), or commitment — he doesn’t mind at all whether Mark has sex with other people — or what promises mean, or what is personal space (a ridiculous idea to a Faerie.)
Mostly what I’ve seen complaint-wise about Kieran is that he is manipulative, which is true only to the extent that he has grown up in Faerie, where everyone is manipulative. Because they cannot lie, they have created a complex society of misdirection and manipulation and Kieran, growing up as Prince, would have been raised in the heart of that. He would know no other way to behave, and indeed has only been learning, slowly, different human patterns of behavior. He is actually really terrible at being manipulative — not a patch on Julian, for instance — and mostly he is neither good at it nor does it that often. But we can certainly look at what he has done.
So, on to the note and the vague six words it contains. (I don’t really understand what “he tried to convince Mark that he being with his family again wasn’t real” means, because Mark was obviously with his family and not, say, on a balloon tour of Cappadocia. I don’t think even the Seelie Queen would have tried to convince him otherwise, because that is not manipulation, that is waving your arms around yelling “Mark! They’re dosing you with PCP! That’s not really Ty! It’s a huge bunny!“ which is not going to work and nobody would reasonably think it would.) So I’m just going to gather that some sinister goal is being implied here and talk about why Kieran did send the note.
Remember that none of this is real. Why did Kieran say that? Because he was worried about Mark and thought it was the truth. Not for another reason. I gather there is an assumption that the phrase "remember that none of this is real” is somehow about Mark’s family, but it wasn’t. If Kieran had wanted to say “don’t trust your family” or whatever, he would have said that. The note was about the entire world of the Nephilim. Nor was it anything Kieran didn’t entirely think was true.
Nor was he entirely wrong.
Kieran was cast out of the King’s court because he was well-liked and the King saw him as a threat. He spent his years in the Wild Hunt with Mark watching as Mark’s heart broke every single night when he counted out his family’s names on the stars. He felt Mark’s agony when Mark saw Simon, and thought Simon had come to bring him back to the Nephilim, only to find out the Shadowhunters had abandoned him like garbage. Experiencing the agony of someone you love is worse than experiencing your own. After living through the horror of Mark’s despair and crushing loss, is it particularly surprising that Kieran might be wary of Mark getting attached to his family again only to be ripped away from them again – which is in fact what pretty much everyone in Lady Midnight thought was going to happen? Like, nobody thought this majorly fuckerated offer from the Fair Folk was likely to have a good outcome? Julian was terrified what it meant for the kids and thought it might be better if Mark had never come back? Kieran is unlikely to have a more positive view of the kindliness and honestly of the Clave (or the Courts of Fae) than Julian does.
Here is what Kieran knows to be fact:
Shadowhunters hate Faeries.
Mark was abandoned by his people. The Nephilim, certainly, his family, perhaps. Kieran knows they never tried to get in touch with Mark, and he is unaware of the Blackthorns’ complicated circumstances, that they were forbidden to look for Mark, and that they needed to protect Helen. There is no way he would know about those things, unless he had read the books. (Read the books, Kieran!).
He knows the Shadowhunters have enacted the Cold Peace, a series of racist laws punishing Faeries. He knows Mark will be in danger from this.
He has no reason not to think that when Mark is returned to the world of the Nephilim, using his family as bait, they won’t chop his damn head off.
That is what Kieran is urging Mark not to think is real. Nephilim promises. The idea that he will be safe outside Faerie in the Shadowhunter world. And Kieran is not exactly wrong either. We are all glad that Mark is back with his family….and if the Cohort gets into power they might chop his damn head off. Maybe he would have been better off back in the Wild Hunt.
Kieran can’t lie – and he can’t lie in writing either. He said what he said in his note because he was frightened for Mark, and he wanted him to stay safe. In no way did he mean “Your family doesn’t love you,” because if he thought that, he would actually have said it at some point, ever, rather than being incredibly vague in a note that, since he has never said anything remotely like “Your family doesn’t love you” to Mark, Mark would find incomprehensible. Mark understands the note perfectly, because the idea that Nephilim as a group are not trustworthy is not new to him nor is it a huge surprise Kieran would feel that way. (There’s also a lot of numinous stuff to get into about what real and unreal means to faeries, in a magical sense, but there’s no room here, alas.) Kieran has lots of opportunities to say bad things to Mark about his family if he wanted to, but IIRC he never does.
Misguided is not the same as manipulative. To be manipulative means that you’re playing on someone else’s hopes or fears to achieve selfish ends without regard for their well-being. But the idea that Kieran is a cold-hearted bastard who didn’t mean a word of the note (despite not being actually able to lie) and is a consummate actor doesn’t really jibe with anything we actually know or observe about Kieran. Far from having Julian’s ability to play others like guitar strings, mostly Kieran blurts out what he means when he means it and never even tries to pretend otherwise. He can be petulant as hell and annoying, showing up to see Mark when he’s not supposed to and sulking about whether Mark likes someone else. He can be manipulative in the way he sometimes kisses Mark when Mark is trying to be logical because he’s insecure and he trusts Mark’s desire for him even when he can’t convince himself Mark really loves him (but this doesn’t really work, which is what I mean by Kieran not being great at manipulation). He very foolishly interferes with Mark’s dream in Lord of Shadows because he wants to talk and he thinks giving Mark a dream in which they’re having a friendly conversation means he’ll find out what Mark’s hiding. (Which is another example of him not really understanding human issues. All he wants out of the dream is a talk — “Because you are not truthful with me. Your heart is closed and shrouded. I cannot see it,” Kieran said. “I thought, in dreams, perhaps …” — and the dream starts out with them sitting and talking while one bandages the other, and Kieran manages to get in the idea that he knows Mark is lying to him. Things take a sexy turn, but not because of Kieran. He can’t control Mark’s dreams in every detail: if he could, there would be literally zero point in a dream in which he’s hoping Mark will volunteer to tell him the truth. Mark has to have free will in the dream or there’s no point in what Kieran straight-up says the dream is for, and again, Kieran cannot baldfacedly lie. And Kieran is right — Mark is lying to him, in fact the whole family is gaslighting him, which is why it pains Mark when Kieran recalls the phrase “remember that none of this is real.” Because none of it, in this case, IS REAL. Kieran is being lied to by EVERYONE. However, Mark is still right that Kieran shouldn’t be poking at his dreams — and he shouldn’t. Kieran, as a faerie, doesn’t really get that: dreams aren’t private to him, and besides, Mark has allowed Kieran into his dreams before, so Kieran assumes it’ll be okay now, because Mark said it was all right previously. But this is where Kieran needs to learn not to make assumptions, and to value Mark’s privacy even if he doesn’t really get it. Does he? He seems to: he listens to what Mark says, and he never touches his dreams again. In fact, they actually have a pretty useful, healthy conversation about it, though we have to wait until QoAD to see how any breakthroughs they make in LoS play out.)
So yes, Kieran can make spectacularly bad decisions, with the worst of them being when he thought getting Mark hauled back to the Wild Hunt for an infraction was a good idea and wouldn’t result in any collateral damage. And Kieran deserves to be blamed and to feel guilty for that, nor do I mean to excuse him – and I have no interest in doing that; that wrong that he did is a building block of his flawed character. As I saw someone say on twitter the other day, which probably means you’ve all seen it many times, characters are not all either angelic cinnamon rolls or problematic monsters. Like people, because they are intended to reflect people, they exist on a continuum of behavior: some fail and learn, some fail and never learn, some have good intentions and some bad, some grow and change, some are changed by grief or shock or maturity, some cannot grow and are tragic figures. Committing a manipulative act doesn’t damn you forever unless you keep committing manipulative acts forever. If people (and characters) were rendered garbage by past mistakes, there would be no need for therapy or books, since both are about how people learn to change.
As Kieran says: “Everyone is more than one thing. We are more than the single actions we undertake, whether they be good or evil.” That was in Lady Midnight, and it’s possible he was thinking about the fact that he never tells Mark in that book that the reason he wanted Mark brought back to the Wild Hunt so badly – the reason he turned Mark in, hoping he’d be dragged away from the world of Nephilim – was not so that he could date Mark, but because he had been told Mark was going to be murdered. That Mark’s head was going to be chopped off NOW. That doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it makes it a lot less manipulative in two ways: he actually wasn’t acting for a selfish end, but to protect Mark from death, and he never tells Mark that in LM, letting Mark blame him. He lets Mark break up with him and walk away from him with only quiet resignation as a reply. He does nothing to try to make him stay and attempts no manipulation at all, nor is he manipulative when he shows up to help save Tavvy – he offers help, gives it, and expects nothing in return. Only when Kieran is in shock over having been lied to, and his sudden recollection of his own mistakes, does he tell Mark that he was in fear for Mark’s life – which makes a big difference to Mark, who is able to recognize what that means about why Kieran did what he did.
[Kieran said] “Iarlath had hinted you would not be safe in the Shadowhunters’ world. That they were planning to lure you back, only to execute you on some trumped-up charge. I was a fool to believe him. I know it now.”
“Oh,” said Mark. The knowledge unfolded in him, realization edged with relief. “You thought you were saving my life.”
Kieran nodded. “It makes no difference, though. What I did was wrong.”
(Emphasis mine.) Kieran is flawed, he screws up. He is also capable of acts of great nobility – his willingness to testify to protect the Blackthorns at the end of LOS being one of them. Kieran spends LOS being lied to and manipulated by everyone around him while his memory is gone. He is trapped in the Institute, a place so full of anti-Faerie magic that it makes him so sick he can barely eat. He suspects Mark is jerking him around in some way, he turns out to be right, and he’s still willing to testify in the Blackthorns’ defense. He is also able to see when he is/was wrong, and acknowledge it. None of this makes him a perfect person, but it certainly complicates him away from the oversimplified reading that he’s a manipulative horrorshow and that’s the end of the story — especially when a huge chunk of the story has yet to be told.
My suspicion, since there are plenty of other flawed characters in these books stumbling along messing up, is that Kieran’s true crime is being part of a love triangle. Having been through this before I remember well the long essays about how Will was a horrible person and the Wessa relationship was toxic and Jem was a horrible person and that relationship was toxic because dying people should know not to bother other people with their feelings (seriously). That is how people talk about love triangles these days; it seems to be a contest about which relationship is perceived as healthiest, which people are the best and most deserving people of the prize (Tessa, or in this case, Mark). There are a couple problems with that: one that is an unhealthy relationship can become healthy. (It obviously depends on the relationship, some absolutely cannot and should not be fixed, but there would be little need for marriage counselors if relationships could not be made healthier.) The second is that if you want to hate a character, you can convince yourself they are evil even if they spend a whole book saving bunnies, nuns, and salmon who can’t find the salmon cannon, so the arguments do get a bit circular after a while. Certainly I have come across plenty of essays about how Cristina is terrible and should go away because Kieran doesn’t like her (he does like her) and Mark doesn’t want her (not true) and she isn’t so great (I think she is so great and so do they.)
So I will say three things:
1) Kieran is not what is keeping Mark and Cristina apart, any more than Cristina is what is keeping Mark and Kieran apart. Kieran and Mark have a relationship that needs to be worked on to be healthy, and Cristina and Mark have to get to know each other better outside the magic of the binding spell. These things would be true regardless.
2) I know that this essay will garner plenty of people announcing that this means I ship Mark and Kieran or am in love with Kieran, and I know this because this happens whenever I post anything about them, or a piece of fanart of them, even if I post a piece of fanart of Cristina and Mark shortly after. I can only say what I have said for ten years, which is that I don’t ship my own characters or “love” them in the way a fan loves a character — all the characters are pieces of myself in some way or other so that’d feel very odd. I know there may be other authors who feel differently, but I can’t “ship” a couple when I’m primarily interested in their relationships in terms of theme, craft and writing the best story I can — I need the distance of being a reader, not a writer, to “ship” something. (I would also note that male authors rarely ever have people talk about how they’re in love with their characters or they write about them because it’s a “fetish” or “they get off on it”: only women get that narrative, but that’s another post.)
3) I remember reading online that writers should write with “savage empathy.” I’ve always thought that was great advice, as it reminds us to always stay in sympathy with characters and write from a place of their humanity, in all the vastness of humanity’s capability for complexity: for the same person to be capable of immense selfishness and immense nobility, or deep gentleness and great cruelty. It reminds us that we strive to reflect what is human rather than what is either entirely perfect or entirely evil. I feel like it’s also been good advice for me as a reader. It reminds me to look at things from the characters’ point of view, to not expect them to know what I know,* to remember the circumstances of their lives and the ways in which they may behave differently than I would because of the way they were raised/what their culture prioritizes. It has helped me be less judgmental of characters and while I don’t think it’s made me unaware of the problematic, I think it’s made me a happier reader. Even when I don’t forgive, I can understand, and that reminder of the eternal complexity of the human soul, and its capability for change and redemption, has enriched my reading life. It’s wonderful to realize that you can enjoy reading even more than you did before, and I can only hope for the same for all my readers.
*This is why it is pointless to be angry at the Superhero’s girlfriend when he is off saving the city, and you know he is off saving the city but she doesn’t, so she’s just angry he didn’t make it to little Marcia’s bat mitzvah.