Book Review: Touched by Venom by Janine Cross

Author’s note: this post will touch on some topics people might find disturbing such as rape, sexual assault, beastiality, and other assorted topics (but will be discussed in a very general, non-detailed manner). If such topics could be upsetting to you in a personally unhealthy way, please skip this post and return in a few days for my review of Bitter Seeds, an alternate history novel featuring super-powered Nazis and demonologist Brits during WWII, you’ll probably like that one more.

Let me tell you a little story about high school.

As with many high school English class experiences, I was often forced to read books I didn’t want to by way of class assignments and such was the case of the summer before my Junior year. My Junior year I would be in the honors English class and, because we were supposedly so advanced, we had summer reading, Gone with the Wind.

I hate, hate, Gone with the Wind.

Partially I hate it because we were given the reading assignment late in the summer and I had to spend a part of my swim team’s trip to Hawaii reading the stupid book, but mostly I hate Scarlet. I hate just about everything regarding her. I hate her spoiled, entitled self. I hate how she continuously denies the reality of her situation. I hate how, if I remember correctly, she doesn’t really care about anyone except for herself and when she finally wakes up and realizes that there’s someone who’s been trying to care for her for an entire novel, she’s too late because she’s an idiot.

I would rather re-read all of the Twilight saga, the stupid Bree Tanner sparklepire novella, and the leaked Edward story that was never published before I’ll read Gone with the Wind ever again. In fact, I’d do all of that twice.

Tyler said last night that he’d rather have a stranger use a power tool on his genitals rather than read this book again.

I think I hated Zarq, the main character of Touched by Venom, almost that much.

Touched by Venom (TbV) by Janine Cross was Tyler’s and my pick to read for April for Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks. Well, to be perfectly honest, the blame for this book rests solely on my shoulders because I wanted to see what his reaction would be to dragon beastiality.

Oh, yeah, that. But we’ll get to that.

TbV is a fantasy story told from the first person perspective of Zarq, a young girl who is part of a clan of slaves and follows her life. Zarq goes through a number of pretty messed up experiences as the unwilling victim of her mother’s bad decisions, dragged along behind her as her mother, who essentially goes crazy when her eldest daughter is sold into sexual slavery to another clan, tries to reclaim her first daughter. Her mother’s actions lead to the brutal death of Zarq’s father (torn apart by a dragon), their exile, and Zarq eventually being sold into religious slavery when she’s more or less forced to join a convent that cares for old, male dragons. Joining the convent requires her to go through female circumcision that, while not explicitly graphic, was graphic enough to make me uncomfortable. Zarq’s mother then dies, leaving her daughter alone.

After this point Zarq takes over her mother’s job of screwing everything up by meddling in and ruining everything she touches. When one of her fellow nuns is raped and becomes pregnant with twins, Zarq screws up the plan to give away the children to nearby natives, thus denying the children a potentially positive life with the natives and dooming them to a lifestyle a hair’s breadth from starvation and genital mutilation at the convent (as the children would have to be rendered “clean” in order to live at the convent). When Zarq and the twin’s mother leave the convent, Zarq, who has become addicted to dragon venom (which isn’t lethal when it comes from older dragons), almost kills the baby when she doesn’t adequately tie it to its mother’s back and she tries to climb down from a tower via rope ladder. When Zarq tries to, in the most lamest fashion possible, assassinate the eldest son of the warlord of her old town she instead brings about the destruction of untold innocents as the warlord razes the district Zarq had been living in as retribution.

All the while Zarq blames other people for these screw ups. Her mother receives a fair amount of the blame for what happens to her, and in some ways rightly so, but later Zarq, during one of her drug-addled states, fixes her attention on the warlord’s son and decides he’s to blame for everything because he killed her father and it was her father’s death that finally got her mother exiled (and Zarq along with her), never mind the fact that he was killed because of things her mother did which were in turn brought about by the actions of a childhood friend of Zarq’s. She never really lays all the blame where it truly belongs and that really, really pissed me off.

Beyond my issues with the main character, I have a lot of issues with what is put forward in this book.

For instance, women are the lowest of the low in this book. The only thing lower than a leper is a woman, because a woman is fundamentally unclean in a spiritual sense according to their church and a leper is just sick. Unless it’s a female leper in which case they’re the only ones lower than healthy women. They are so low that they are required by temple law to sleep in a house on stilts lest any of their “unclean secretions” (anything from tears to menstrual blood) defile the holy earth. There are only two things women are really good for in this book and both involve sex: either they are meant for pleasure or for babies (the term for “wife” translates to “garden of children”). Women are essentially treated as property; they are traded for marriage contracts, goods and services; they are used a sexual objects (sometimes without their consent as what happens when Zarq’s older sister is sold to a neighboring clan for food); and then there’s the whole “garden of children” thing. A woman in this novel doesn’t even own her own name; when they are “claimed”, a woman’s name changes to add her husband’s name in the possessive sense before it. So Sally, after being claimed by Bob, becomes Bob’s Sally; a woman doesn’t even own herself.

This novel also has other, unsavory aspects. There’s religious/political oppression, religious zealotry, rampant misogyny, slavery, sexual abuse, rape, forced genital mutilation of various kinds, torture, murder, and incest. And bestiality with dragons. Can’t forget that.

I don’t really know what Janine Cross intended when she wrote this book. She puts Zarq through any number of horrible, horrible situations, often brought about by Zarq’s own doing. She has this wretchedly oppressive world and no real, clear message about it; she doesn’t have any real commentary on the nature of the world and doesn’t seem to be using what happens to Zarq to say anything of note. The book doesn’t have an over-arching plot that is resolved in the course of this book, which to me feels sloppy, like she couldn’t write the entire story in one novel. The ending is so bland and anti-climactic that I can’t imagine why anyone would read the second novel in the series except maybe to see just how bad the train wreck can be.

Do yourself a favor and skip this book. If possible, forget it even exists.

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14 Responses to Book Review: Touched by Venom by Janine Cross

  1. A Bear says:

    Hello!

    Thank you for braving the dark underbelly of the literary world once more. Though, you might have gone past the underbelly and straight to the under-tail in this case, but…

    I had intended to read this book and was hoping to have done so before your post and podcast was released but I just never managed to get around to it. Oh well; spoilers or no, I decided to give the podcast a listen.

    I’m glad I did – the book sounds far, far worse than I expected it to be. Addictive dragon venom which acts as a hallucinogenic aphrodisiac, a patriarchal society which abuses women, genital mutilation, females being prevented from owning dragon… Sure, okay, I can deal with that. I can see those concepts being used to good effect as an analogy to the abuse of women in some modern day societies. Maybe that was the original intent but it didn’t end up that way.

    Maybe you could contact some of these authors and ask them about it. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear their point of view as well? I think a short question and answer with Janine about her book has the potential to be fascinating. What was her intent when she wrote this book? Is there anything she would change?

    I can’t imagine that Janine has a busy schedule… But it might be a bit awkward sending out that initial contact. “Hey there Janine, we review really terrible books, so we read one of yours. Do you have time to answer a few questions?” (o:

    Listening to you guys talk about this book it’s hard to find any redeeming qualities. I do find a bit of pleasure in reading a terrible atrocity from time to time. It’s like watching a bad movie – you know it’s going to be terrible but that’s why you watch it. You can get some enjoyment out of the badness. I’m not sure that Touched by Venom is even worthy of that, though.

    Someone had mentioned male hyenas have large penises. They do indeed, but are you sure your pictures were of the males? I’ll leave this here for your perusal:

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2009/09/25/friday-weird-science-the-hyena-mating-game/

    Unlike Janine Cross, who apparently spent quite a lot of time researching female circumcision, Carlton Mellick III did not put nearly as much effort into researching hyenas – something he should have down briefly since he uses gnolls. What a shame. He could have given his book that extra, well, something. His book comes across as another missed opportunity, something that might have started out as interesting social commentary but just ended up being a piece of crap.

    Also, by page twenty or so, you’ll have seen just about all of the creativity that Carlton could manage. The rest of the book is a lot like That Guy (everyone knows That Guy) who tells you the same awful joke over and over and expects you to laugh every time, and if you don’t, he pokes you with a big grin and says, “See what I did there? Huh? Did you get it?”

    At least it’s a short read this time around. :oD

    • A Bear says:

      Also, I should probably not post and drink at the same time. Sorry about the atrocious spelling / grammatical issues. ~(o:

    • mattmarovich says:

      Thanks for the support. 8)

      Yeah, I might have had less of an issue with TBV if all of the horrible things we talked about on the podcast had some kind of purpose; as it was, it felt horrible just for horriblen-ness’ sake, if that makes any kind of sense.

      Yeah, I’m almost done with Carlton’s book and, well, it’s crap, 100% Grade A, steaming straight from the cow’s bunghole crap. I’m not going to say more than that because I have to write a post and do a podcast on it but, yeah, I’ll be ditching this book as soon as I can (thank you, however, for buying it for us to read).

  2. I’m not sure if I should be impressed that you read this or sort of terrified that your brains (both you and Tyler’s) could handle this much…well, from your description gratuitous misogyny. Just listening to your podcast made me have to go back and listen to all 15 of my Ani Difranco albums just to feel alright again. Which leads me to a follow up question, from your Twilight ‘cast: do you think this book would have a detrimental effect on the psyche of a reader? does it matter if that reader is a male or female?
    In that vein, I’d like to request that the next two books be awful tales in which male lead characters make poor life choices, are trapped in societies that inflict gratuitous pain and woe, and generally fail to rise above their predicaments in anyway and eventually end up embracing the very evil they’ve been trying to fight all along — all for the theoretical entertainment of the reader.

    • A Bear says:

      You have a good point. These books may cause serious damage to one’s mental health.

      We may need to start some kind of Mental Health / Convalescent Recovery Home fund for our dear pod casters – just so that we can hit them with another atrocity the moment they’ve recovered and feel a little less guilty.

      But, I suppose that is what the whisky, vodka, gin, etc. is for. (o:

    • mattmarovich says:

      How do I tolerate this level of misogyny? You do remember that I’m really into politics, right? It’s like a callus on the soul.

      Do I think it would be detrimental on the psyche of a reader? I think that depends. I do think there are some people that would be susceptible to books of this nature but then there are people for that sort of thing for all kinds of media. How many of our friends became utterly consumed with WoW? How many grown women not only became Twilight Moms, but became totally consumed in the fandom of Twilight? Would there be people, men, let’s be honest, who would look at this book and find such a society appealing? Sure, but I think such people are (hopefully) in the minority. I’d probably assume that there’d be more men than women into the society, due to the fact that the society benefits men more than women.

      Well, the next one involves two male main characters getting raped a lot*. Does that count?

      *I only wish I was kidding.

  3. Wow, this book sounds like a handful of messy political and psychosexual statements put forward as some sort of cathartic release.

    Why do I feel like the worst fantasy or science fiction is the stuff where the authors hold incredibly heavy-handed political beliefs and crowbar it into their fictional analogous world in the most “Look at how psychological destructive this stuff is” way seemingly designed to test the limits of sympathy and disgust?

    This makes me think of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, my first experience of dawning horrified realization that we were seeing a damaged author put damaged ideas onto paper through a fantasy world that allowed his ideas to be true and valid. Ugh.

    Great podcast, by the way! How do I send you a book? Do you have an Amazon wishlist thingy, I want to buy you guys a copy of John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows because apparently I’m a sadist who likes to inflict literary trauma on kind-hearted strangers on the internet.

    • mattmarovich says:

      Why do I feel like the worst fantasy or science fiction is the stuff where the authors hold incredibly heavy-handed political beliefs and crowbar it into their fictional analogous world in the most “Look at how psychological destructive this stuff is” way seemingly designed to test the limits of sympathy and disgust?

      Well, the easy answer is that they want to be shocking and edgy to make sure they make an impact. I think in many ways those people who do so because they have a message they want to convey are shouting their message, which goes over as well with me as if they were literally shouting at me as we were trying to have a conversation. It’s not necessarily a bad approach, it just doesn’t work for me.

      My issue is that TBV didn’t seem to have a real commentary or message.

      This makes me think of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, my first experience of dawning horrified realization that we were seeing a damaged author put damaged ideas onto paper through a fantasy world that allowed his ideas to be true and valid. Ugh.

      Yeah, the first book, and even the second one, in that series were ok. But then they started getting weirder and weirder and I just had to bow out.

      Great podcast, by the way! How do I send you a book?

      Thanks, we appreciate hearing that. I do have an Amazon wishlist set up for the podcast and I’ve added that book to the list. Please use this link to get to Matt’s Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks Podcast Wishlist so that we also can get some credit toward’s Amazon’s affiliate program (all proceeds are being turned around to use for the podcast). I’ve added the first in the Paladin of Shadow’s series there.

      Judging by the fact that this book’s Amazon description is so rife with spelling and grammar errors, and sounds positively vile, I’m not certain whether I should thank you or curse your name. However, buy the book for us and we’ll read it.

      • Oh you’ll curse my name, trust me.

        Dammit, I can’t figure out how the Amazon wishlist works – it keeps trying to send me the books instead of to you. I’ll try to figure out a better way to work it once I get a bit more time.

        Would it be easier to just send you guys the ebook?

      • mattmarovich says:

        That’s really, really weird. Once you’re on the Amazon site you can look up a Wishlist for Matt Marovich and chose it. It should be giving you the option to send it to me. 8(

        No thank you on the eBook unless we’re buying a copy from the publisher; we want to make sure the copies of the books we get are on the level

      • Understandable about the ebook thing.

        I don’t think Amazon is going to let me ship you the books unless you attach an address to the wishlist, alas.

      • mattmarovich says:

        Aha! I see what wasn’t fixed. Just added my ship to address, didn’t know I needed to do that since that isn’t my default wishlist. You should be able to send the books now.

      • Finally sent! Hopefully you’ll get ’em this weekend. Sorry about all the confusion, and don’t take the horribleness of these books as some sort of personal cruelty being inflicted on you, despite every impulse you may feel as you read them.

        Also, the author has more or less self-admitted that they are purposefully horrible. I would recommend AFTER reading them, check out this hilarious review: http://hradzka.livejournal.com/194753.html

      • mattmarovich says:

        Thank you! Trust me, we won’t take it that you hate us.

        Now, if you’d sent us Edward/Jacob slash-fic then I’d think you’d hate us.

        That is not an invitation for you to send us Edward/Jacob slash-fic.

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