There are few works out there like Cathy Malkasian’s Temperance. A wild story about a town held together by fear of an invading, unnamed, enemy army. Blessedbowl, the society formed around this central lie/plot, is a town that privileges lies and deception so much they become the fabric holding the town together.
This fabric of fear and lies is the same theme set by Pa, the “father” of girls Peggy and Minerva, did they same to his “family.” There is a theme of ideological inheritance and how, even if you hate someone or something, growing up, it can still shape your overall perspective later in life.
Minerva, our protagonist, obviously thinks Pa is wrong and what he says is lies, but she is without the power to do anything. After all, she is quite young in the start of the story. But, soon after Pa tries to murder Lester, a man that happens to come upon Pa almost raping/beating Minerva’s sister Peggy, Lester leaps to action.
Pa debilitates Lester and throws him from a cliff. Soon Minerva escapes Pa and goes to find Lester who she thinks is the most handsome man she has ever seen.
While her opinion of Pa and his methods are, obviously, anathema to her own sprite, jubilant, and wary personality, she will still instill a very similar structure to the town of Blessedbowl once she is in charge.
In many ways, it can be said that Malkasian, if only accidentally though I doubt that, has developed an allegory for America. Then again, it is also the story about lies told in marriages and how those lies keep us together. If anything, it is obvious by books end that its title, Temperance, is ironic above all else.
There is not much done in moderation within the pages of Temperance. Although the theme does pop up more often than one might think, she populates her worlds with characters full of desire and far more ignorant of the consequences than anyone would hope for.After all, who would want to hang out with a broken, one legged man who finds sleep only when he finishes his bottle. Hardly sounds like a fun night. Yet, Malkasian’s characters are fascinating to watch.
In fact, one thing that is in moderation is setting. The overall story really only takes place within Blessedbowl, or just on the outskirts in a dense forest. While the plot seems unoriginal, and the settings sparse, there is a vast, epic feel to what Malkasian is trying to attempt, which is to unpack how humans become embittered, entrenched in their ideologies, almost completely blind in seeing the effects of any philosophy, especially one that pits us vs them – though the ‘them’ there is left ambiguous on purpose.
In many ways, Malkasian is a trickster, sly in how she presents something so seemingly simply, yet vast and complex underneath. This is not a cute tale about how people can bond over an enemy. This is a story about how having an enemy can bring out the worst of anyone.
While Pa is the only origin source for the lie of an invading enemy, it is Minerva, his unknowing pupil, who truly carries out his ideology into action and control of a society. From this basic plot we witness a town in control by fear. Lester, now married to Minerva, cannot remember his history after Pa’s attempted murder of Lester.
But, Malkasian is placing an interesting question at the heart of the tug of war between antipodal philosophies, in that sometimes horrible things are done in the name of good intentions.
For instance, Pa is a character that most would describe as barbaric and dull, a man so mentally crippled by fear that he would murder his own daughter to keep it alive. This sounds horrible, like a tyrant, but in reality Pa believes there is an enemy coming. One that is far worse than anything he could ever do. But, at the core, Pa is simply trying to keep people alive and safe from the enemy.
There is a nobility to defending the weak from predators, whoever they may be. Pa recognizes a weakness and an encroaching doom to him and his family. There is nothing evil about this intention, however when you start enacting your own justice based on that you change from chivalry to despot.
The complexity arises when you compare Pa to Minerva. While it would seem rational to say all despots are violent, this is not true. Minerva, who should be called a tyrant, was only so ideologically.
Malkasian is really painting an allegory on perspective and how that can become just as massive a weapon as the A-bomb even. This is a force that can shape a whole society in such a manner, with such efficacy, that it leaves that culture forever different.
While America’s current political climate has more to do with Temperance than we might want to admit, it is imperative to note that Malkasian is not picking on anyone. Instead, Malkasian is trying to shine a light on something more intrinsic, and dark, in our need for safety and stability.