Charlotte is getting all gussied up for her evening with Daddy Sauron. Servants are compressing her body into that universal symbol of Victorian oppression of women, the corset.
Charlotte let out her breath as the three servants standing behind her pulled the corset strings tight. Charlotte felt her rib cage squeeze together, her breasts forcibly spilling out the top. It was extremely uncomfortable and she could barely manage to take a breath.
I wonder sometimes if the reason the references to Charlottes breasts stand out to me is just because A) I had come relatively recently off of a story where it had been a noticeable problem not long before I picked up the Immortal Cure, making me unusually aware, and B) I’d written about it in that first post, which fixed the hyper-awareness in my mind. Definitely it’s a common criticism that books often bring up a woman’s breasts often enough to distract from the narrative, but corsets were actually designed to accentuate breasts (as well as minimize the waist), and it’s not CJ Olsen’s fault that corsets became the universal symbol for Victorian oppression.
Then paragraphs like this bail me out.
Charlotte turned to the side, then twisted to see the back. She had told herself that she would control the outcome of this meeting. She had to show Harthum that he did not own her. But now, standing in a gown likely hand-picked by Harthum himself, Charlotte’s confidence wavered. The dress was gorgeous and, despite the fact that it’s design drew attention to her breasts, Charlotte loved it.
In addition to the ongoing fixation on Charlotte’s chest (description of, say, her hair is comparatively infrequent, despite being one of the handful of physical details she was assigned in her descriptive paragraph), we also see here Charlotte telling herself that she letting Daddy Sauron dress her up however he likes doesn’t mean she’s allowing him to exert control over her, but, y’know, it very much does. It’s a fairly invasive extent of control, even. Sure, he could go further, but it’s not like Charlotte has a specific line she’s committed to which Harthum has yet to cross. Apparently her plans for resisting her father are so far limited to thinking very disapproving thoughts about him. I’d be willing to cut this book more slack for frequent sexualization of Charlotte on account of her body having been designed by an incestuous super villain if it weren’t for things like this.
That said, we’re not past the point of no return or anything. Maybe this book just thinks it’s holding its cards closer to its luscious, curvy chest than it actually is, and plans on making an actual point out of this. The groundwork is definitely there, and Charlotte is, presumably, going to have a character arc at some point (if this book is following standard plotting gospel as closely as that extremely overt save the cat moment earlier implies, this does at least mean that there will at minimum be an attempt at a character arc).
Charlotte’s older sister Lindris shows up to opine about how wonderful Harthum is.
“He deserves you,” she said with a sickening smile. “You will bring him much happiness.” Charlotte looked at her, hands trembling with anger and disgust. How does he do this? Charlotte lamented. How can he manipulate people so thoroughly?
If he’s like most psychopaths, it’s not exactly a complex manipulation. He just retaliates against any sign of people contradicting his narrative while freely abandoning not only the truth, but also previous versions of his own story as appropriate. Mainly they rely on people’s stunning reluctance to suspect deception when someone changes their story four times in as many hours, or to hold future stories in suspicion when they do. Seriously, unraveling the average psychopath’s web of lies isn’t hard at all, they tell them so prolifically that they tend to trip up and contradict themselves early and often, people are just way too willing to assume that the fifth story they tell is the truth because it doesn’t have any apparent contradictions rather than guess that maybe since the first four were lies that the fifth is probably just the point where they stumbled across something airtight rather than the moment when they broke down and told the truth.
That isn’t really anything to do with the book, it just agitates me how often I see people lamenting “how could I possibly have known that this abusive bully with transparently deceptive alibis papered comically thin over half a decade of continuous harassment campaigns was a bad person?”
Anyway, after she finishes getting dressed, Charlotte meets up with her sisters before Harthum makes his appearance.
Lindris and her daughter Tatiana had very different reactions to seeing Charlotte.
Including her sister who is also her niece. Tatiana and Charlotte share some bland as tofu dialogue, the main takeaway from which is that Tatiana is a big fan of adventure novels, something which Charlotte’s internal monologue has explicitly condemned as frivolous in the past. Then Lindris shows up and condemns Tatiana for her frivolous interest in adventure novels. It definitely comes off like Lindris is clipping Tatiana’s wings in service to the evilarchy, except Charlotte expressed the exact same opinion in chapter two, so…?
In the chair facing Charlotte sat Eternal Harthum. To his side stood a gorgeous woman wearing a transparent, nearly non-existent, white tunic that only reached to her upper thighs, revealing long slender legs. The tunic had slits along the side showing ample portions of her hips and breasts. She wore a veil of the same material across her mouth and stared forward with glazed-over eyes.
Charlotte wondered why she bothered wearing the dress in the first place.
The woman was one of Harthum’s many concubines. While not performing their usual services they apparently doubled as his servants.
Not that an evil overlord with a harem of concubines is some shocking breach of taboo or anything, but I’m bringing it up just to reassert one more time just how thick this shit has been laid on before calling at least a partial moratorium on it. I’ve already skipped a couple of references to either Charlotte’s breasts or Harthum’s general perversion, only drawing attention to the most egregious ones, and I’m going to skip anything that doesn’t set a new standard for “Charlotte breasted boobily out the door” kind of passages, because it’s devouring the entire review with how frequently it comes up.
I’m gonna quote a bit here because it’s important a page or two later:
Harthum’s eyes narrowed but then relaxed and he sat back, his grin becoming a smile. He waved a limp hand toward the concubine. “Ah yes, well Drimilda is from the northern part of the Magi Continent.” He snapped his fingers and the woman refilled his glass even though he had only taken a few sips. “A gift from some of the noble lords of the country.” He set one leg atop his knee and took a drink of wine. “But her beauty is fabricated my dear. You can make almost any woman enticing with the right clothes and paints, much like a blank canvas. A little gold here, perhaps a deep blue there. Your beauty however,” he took another sip of his glass and smiled, “is nothing like Drimilda’s. Less like a painting and more like that of the sun’s rays. Natural, radiant, and powerful.”
Harthum stared at Charlotte with intense eyes and she looked away from him, instead looking to the concubine.
The woman represented Harthum’s power, authority, and control. Thoughts of a continent controlled by the mere existence of Harthum and his equal Eternal Laedris caused Charlotte’s skin to crawl. From everything Charlotte had found, Harthum had never stepped foot in the Magi Continent. He sat here casually drinking wine, yet nations followed his every whim.
The dialogue is kind of stilted but the basic thrust of the villainous monologue isn’t a bad one. He’s an evil overlord who views other people as treasure, sure, that’s not fantastic or anything, but it could definitely be handled a lot more clumsily than it is.
But then Charlotte and Harthum get into a bit of a tiff:
“In fact, I was just speaking with my sister, Lindris, of this very thing.” She leaned forward, her confidence building, and said quietly, “You will not have me Harthum. I will not be your plaything. Your authority and your power is a sham. I know your immortality is some kind of trick.”
Like two pages ago we’re commenting on how the entire Magi Continent bends to Harthum’s will, and now Charlotte asserts that “your authority and your power is a sham.” And what kind of trick is his immortality? Like, sure, it’s ultimately just a thing an alchemist can learn to do and not some symbol of divine right, I think that’s what this paragraph is trying to say, but what’s actually come out is “your power is a sham” immediately after asserting that Harthum’s power is, in fact, globe-spanning and absolute.
Harthum then starts an AMA with Charlotte.
[“]You can ask me any question and I will answer it.”
“How does the Elixir of Life work?” she said immediately.
Harthum’s face lost some of its joviality. “Straight to the point, are we? The Elixir of Life doesn’t work. It lives within me. Within these walls one could say.”
“That is not an answer.”
“Oh it is, you just do not understand it.”
“What is the secret to Alchemy?”
The answer took Charlotte by surprise. What does he mean, human souls? Was he speaking in riddles to confuse her?
Aren’t you supposed to be smart and well-read? That answer is scant on details, but obviously Harthum has some means of converting living people into life-extension through some kind of ritual that requires him to remain in the tower, which is why he never leaves.
Harthum sat back once again, finishing off his glass of wine.
“What have you done with all those people?”
Now, I often skip several paragraphs or even entire pages in order to avoid bloating the posts (the length gets away from me often enough as it is) and bumping up against Amazon’s anti-piracy copy/paste limits. I bring this up because I want to be clear that these two lines are immediately after the quote above. I even left in the line about Harthum drinking wine, even though it’s not really important, just to go ahead and leave absolutely nothing out. Charlotte goes directly from being informed that human souls power alchemy to asking what Harthum has done with the subjects he disappears.
“Ah,” Harthum said dipping his finger in the dregs and moving it along the lip of his glass causing it to sing a high-pitched note. “Well my dear, that and your previous question are nearly one and the same. Alchemy requires human souls and human souls can only be found in one place.”
Charlottes eyes widened in horror.
Now, it doesn’t say specifically that Charlotte failed to put this together, so maybe she was just asking to confirm suspicions. But the narrative is following Charlotte’s perspective specifically, and doesn’t indicate at all that Charlotte was expecting this. Rather, the widening eyes imply that she is not only horrified, but shocked, despite the fact that, y’know, it was kind of obvious from the moment he said alchemy is powered by human souls.
Anyway, Harthum murders his concubine and has Charlotte’s stalker chimera (not actually a proper noun – there’s multiple stalkers, one for each of Harthum’s living daughters at least, so this is another word capitalized for no reason) come down and eat the body, just to demonstrate to Charlotte that he is, in fact, in control. Charlotte’s defiance here was always kind of stupid, in that it wasn’t so much “welp, my efforts to figure out how to assassinate him have failed and I’d rather die than marry him, so I may as well go out with some defiance,” and more “maybe if I’m real stern he’ll be forced to let me go.”
After killing the concubine, Harthum is all “you realize that if I end up mulching you into alchemy juice I’m gonna marry Tatiana next, right?” and under that threat Charlotte promises to behave herself. I really hope Charlotte’s poorly planned and easily defeated defiance is an intentional flaw that she’s supposed to overcome. Like, obviously she’s going to murder Daddy Sauron at some point, but hopefully that’ll be, like, part of an arc where she learns that the secret to defiance is actually threatening would-be oppressors and not just stamping your foot and demanding they stop enslaving you, rather than just her being exactly the same at the end as she is now, just armed with an immortality-piercing MacGuffin.