All right, ladies and dudes and beings of fluid gender orientation. I haven't done a 'fic review in ages, but this one dragged the opinionated bitch in my brain out of hibernation.
Be aware that the following contains mild spoilers for Bleach. Also, the story includes a disturbing (but non-graphic) birthing scene, so know that it is there. With that said, gentle reader, get comfortable; today, I have issues.
I have extracted myself from my pursuit of higher education to raise a point.
The point being a fan fiction of epic proportions. Say hi to Inner Hollow, a Bleach masterpiece from the abyss of the Pit. It is a shining example of the maxim I've used before: popularity does not imply quality.
More than that (though the reader responses are disturbing enough), Inner Hollow exemplifies a worrisome fandom trend: the dehumanisation of the romantic rival. It is such a textbook case that even when the whole story is a user manual to OOC, this trend glares like a searchlight through all the rest.
So, Bleach. Without plot spoilers, it is the story of a ridiculously powerful teenager who can see ghosts, the otherworldly girl who becomes his mentor/friend, and a bunch of other characters whose lives intersect theirs in various interesting ways. It is a postmodern blend of samurai influence, coming-of-age story, themes of friendship and estrangement, and by-the-book shounen (=boys' manga) series; you know the drill. Personally, I quite love it.
For the moment, it's enough to say that the main character, Kurosaki Ichigo, and the shinigami (a sort of grim reaper whose job is to guide the dead and fight evil spirits) girl who crashes into his life, Kuchiki Rukia, are frequently paired together in the fandom.
Enter Inoue Orihime, gentle girl-next-door with a deepening crush on Ichigo. In canon, she has explicitly stated romantic feelings for Ichigo (while he treats her as a friend). Much is also made of the fact that Rukia changes Ichigo's life for the better, and of the two quickly falling into an odd but close friendship. The rest, as they say, is subtext.
If you've spent more than a week in (any) fandom, you realise this is heading into the turbulent waters of a full-blown 'ship war. I'm not here to talk about that, but about an often ugly side effect of such a fracas.
Inner Hollow systematically takes Orihime, kicks her down, draws on her face, rips out her hair, and jumps on the remains just to see the silly, hapless girl twitch.
I grant you: Orihime is persistent--but always undemanding--in her feelings. She is often at a 90 degree angle to reality as other people understand it, and she can be a bit of an airhead. She is also the established healer/barrier-wielder of Ichigo's
In the same vein, Rukia is a competent fighter, something of an acerbic spitfire, and tends to cover up her insecurities with loud or haughty behaviour. She is the physically kickass female to Orihime's quiet girl. Rukia's shinigami, Orihime's human. There are lots of in-text situations where they are parallelled with each other, more or less subtly, and the parallels are cheerfully dissected by the fandom in turn.
The two of them are also good, if fresh, friends in canon.
I want you to digest all this, gentle reader, before I tear, as it were, into the story at hand. Done? Good. Let's move forward.
Inner Hollow spans 83 chapters and counting. It's a post-series story, so beware of recent manga spoilers if you go looking. It takes a somewhat interesting premise and manages to mangle it, and the characters themselves, almost beyond recognition.
The premise is this: In the Bleach universe, there are spirits gone bad known as Hollows. Through a series of circumstances, Ichigo (as shounen protagonists tend to) gains a demonic side in the form of a Hollow inside him. For the most part, it enables him to kick ass in great measure. In the hands of fandom, it also feeds the Better Sex Through Your Darker Self trope: as Ichigo is sixteen and flaily, his much less inhibited Hollow gets to help him out in the bedroom department.
So far, so good. It does make for steamier shenanigans. The author of Inner Hollow seems to have decided, not without precedent, that if one is good, two must be doubly so. Via a plot contrivance, Rukia also finds herself in possession of a resident dark mirror/sex god.
The Hollows then proceed to engage in bizarre acts of carnal decadence that finally drive their owners to fornicate like weasels in heat, as well. Again, nothin' wrong with that as such.
My main beef with this story isn't its fanbait nature. There's sex, there's schmoop, there's Orihime-bashing until I felt physically ill. Most of the characters are plot conveniences, paired off to each other based on the author's personal whimsy or fandom conventions. (Oh, jaina, what did you start by getting Renji and Rangiku together?) It shows like a kick in the eye that the role and fun factor of any given character in the story is directly proportional to the author's affection for them. Otherwise, I will never understand what the fuck Mashiro is doing as Rukia's bridesmaid. (Yeaaah, there is a big, vaguely Western wedding scene. More on that later.)
What ticks me, dear reader, is that there is one character in all this jumble (the story ends up with cameos from mostly every named character) whose treatment contrasts with all the rest so sharply you could slit a throat on it. Orihime is indeed parallelled with Rukia here, too.
Rukia becomes a battle/sex/domestic goddess, and Orihime is reduced to a walking womb with the occasional petty, possessive impulse towards a couple of the male characters.
There is pregnancy. There is a (hopefully unwitting) whore/virgin bride dichotomy running through the entire 'fic. Liberated women can have sexual adventures out the wazoo, but ultimately, all they truly desire is a white wedding, a kind and suitably kinky husband, and some offspring to complete the picture.
Rukia has liberating escapades with Ichigo, he offers her a wholesome wedding ring, and they are considering multiplying after they've dealt with the latest plot-related problem in the 'fic.
Orihime, in turn, begins a loveless relationship with Ishida (another member of Ichigo's posse, with whom she is also often 'shipped), connives to prick holes in the condoms so he'll stay with her, consequently gets pregnant by him, is shunned by all when Rukia picks up her diary and reveals the Evil Plan (=the condoms) she has outlined there, dumb bint that she is--and ends up giving birth during Ichigo and Rukia's fairytale wedding.
I'll just give you a moment to take that in, and mention that she's referred to as "Inoue" throughout, while most of the other characters get their first names in narration. This holds true even when she's the POV character.
Let me get back to the climactic wedding scene. There's plenty more as quotable parts go, but this one foregrounds what is wrong here. There is a woman giving birth on the ground (it's... an outdoors ceremony) while our lovebirds pledge their undying devotion to one another. Somehow, she's so insignificant that most of the people don't even notice her lying there.
Then she nearly doubles over at the next flash of pain. It was much stronger than the last one.
Nobody has even noticed, that Inoue Orihime is in labor.
And those who eventually do couldn't seem to care less. From Isshin, father of Ichigo and qualified medical doctor, comes this wonderful summation of the situation (relevant part bolded, I just had to quote more for effect):
“Don’t worry, I’ll muzzle her. I’m going to erect a barrier around them." Rangiku says.
“Don’t.” Isshin says to her, and Rangiku’s eyes widen.
“Why not?” She asks Ichigo’s father. Inoue’s contraction subsides, and she tries very hard to deal with the pain, without bawling in tears.
“It will just draw more attention. You can, however, use a binding spell to gag her.” He tells Rangiku, and Inoue’s eyes widen in fear.
“Gag me?” Inoue repeats quietly, and Isshin gives her a sympathetic look.
“I can’t have you ruin my son’s wedding. Don’t worry, we’re going to make this go as easily as possible for-” Isshin is cut off, as Inoue’s eyes squeeze shut for another giant contraction.
Rangiku quickly uses a binding spell that wraps cloth around the back of Inoue’s head, and comes around to cover her mouth.
Newsflash: You do not obstruct the breathing of a woman in labour. I've never given birth, but I do know pregnant women practice in advance in order to breathe right when the birthing begins.
Isshin is a doctor. A doctor a doctor A FUCKING DOCTOR. He would be calling an ambulance the moment a young first-time mother had her water break in his presence, and screw his son's wedding. Hell, if everyone else was as inept as the pod people in this story, Ichigo would leave Rukia in the aisle and get Orihime to a hospital. Protective streak a mile wide, bueller? And, just for the heck of it, Rukia would certainly kick his ass if he did anything but that very thing.
(In a more tongue-in-cheek vein, jaina also suggested if anything, Isshin would be kooky enough to drag Orihime in front of everyone so they could witness the MIRACLE OF LIFE in action. That'd make more sense. Anything but this.)
Instead, Orihime somehow manages not to choke through the GAG DOWN HER THROAT, and the wedding proceeds uninterrupted. This is how Ichigo and Rukia react when someone finally calls the paramedics and Orihime is carted away to hospital:
“She had the baby?!” Rukia says in shock, and Ichigo’s face practically mirrors hers.
“In the middle of our wedding?” He says, and they meet each other’s eyes.
“How did we not notice?” Rukia asks him in awe.
“Well…we did hear a baby crying.” Ichigo says, and Rukia shakes her head.
[Without further comment, they proceed to their limousine.]
He quickly gets her to the limousine and once inside, he looks at her hungrily.
“Maybe we should get started on making our own baby.” Ichigo says, as he starts flipping her gown up, so that her legs are exposed.
skinship said it best: this Orihime is not a person. With the way no one even registers her physical pain, she isn't any kind of a feeling, living being. She's a plot gimmick, a birthing machine on two legs, a thing to be abused at the author's caprice. She can hurt and fear all she likes without anyone having a human reaction to her distress.
The only thing of consequence in the birthing scene is the lead-in it provides for the abrupt live show in the expensive limo (yeah, they have sex in full view of the wedding guests).
This isn't the end of it: Orihime's newborn baby is taken away from her and adopted by Ishida, who has hooked up with his Real True Love (in this case, Nemu, for those who know Bleach) and despises Orihime with the fire of a thousand suns. Ishida and Nemu go along with her to the hospital, but their attitude could use some improvement. Ishida is torn whether he should care a woman he knows (and fucked) could be dying after giving birth to his child. Even if he now abhors her for the pricked condoms (sorry, I just can't get over that), they're stuck in a moving ambulance with Orihime. It's a small space. You can't escape the nearness of a person in pain, yet this Ishida, in what seems like mild confusion, as if deciding what to pick for breakfast, refuses the offer to hold her hand.
Not a person not a person not a person.
The real kicker, of which skinship kindly reminded me (my brain must have been trying to erase the atrocity of it) comes when Orihime's doctor arrives to inform Ishida and Nemu of her condition in the hospital:
“Are you the father?” [the doctor] asks, and Ishida nods his head yes.
“Did you have a name picked out for the baby? The mother is in a coma and her health is uncertain. We’re going to end up sending the baby home with you, if she stays like this.” He says, and Ishida simply nods his head.
“His name will be Ishida Takumi.” He says, and the doctor takes a closer look at his face, before his eyes widen.
"HI THIS FEMALE OF YOUR ACQUAINTANCE (THAT YOU BONED) MAY NEVER WAKE UP, SO, LIKE, YOU WANNA TAKE THIS SPAWNLING OFF OUR HANDS?"
I'm pretty sure that under law, he could be sued for malpractice for speaking to a relative/relation like this. When you deal with the lives of people every day, you pick up certain mannerisms, ways of softening the blow, and they become automatic. (Remember, kids, House M.D. is not exactly Truth In Television.)
I'll spare you the part where Orihime wakes up after two weeks in a coma, runs out of the hospital and into Karakura when the streets are swarmed with plot-twist Hollows. I'm sure the above is enough to prove my point.
The author vituperates this character fully on purpose. More than one reviewer seems to read for the sole reason of seeing Orihime humiliated and in agony--and throughout, there is the message that she is just too stupid to help herself. Canonical Orihime is reluctant to violence, can be timid and submissive, but this kind of uninformed idiocy is never, ever her.
Of course, that isn't the point.
This makes me lose respect for a writer. If you don't like/can't write a given character, then don't include them. Send them off to Alcopulco. Refer to them one time to say they are somewhere far out of the way of your Pairing of Choice.
Willfully vilifying them does not, in fact, make you edgy and cool. It makes your writing weak and immature, and any thinking person is prone to think less of you for it. That is all.
The story is problematic in other aspects; the above is merely what pushed me over the threshold of reviewing it. From a stylistic viewpoint, the author's prose is understandable, but inept. Technically, the problems seem to culminate in flocks of runaway commas and incorrect dialogue tags, blah, blah. The extraneous punctuation is annoying, but this author couldn't describe her way out of a wet paper bag. To wit (truncated by only a few sentences; emphasis added for great justice):
[Rukia] hadn’t expected Ichigo to turn around and head back into the room, and now he’s seen her topless. She can’t stop blushing at the thought of that.
[...] She doesn’t exactly want to run into him right away after he just saw her without a shirt on.
Back in the shower, Ichigo is trying his best to get the image of topless Rukia out of his head, but he’s having no success. [...]
While most other guys were ogling over Rangiku-san or Inoue, Ichigo had always felt drawn on every level to Rukia. Seeing her without a shirt on only adds to the feeling of being drawn towards her. [...]
Now [the Big Bad] is defeated though, and his hormones are all forcing him to keep thinking about Rukia all topless, standing in his bedroom as she inspected her perfect silky white side to make sure there’s no marks from her battle the night before.
How did she heal herself like that? I was so surprised when I saw that. I was even more surprised to see her topless, though.
Ichigo finally gets out of the shower and is dismayed that his body seems to have a belated reaction to seeing Rukia topless.
No shit, Sherlock, Ichigo got a good solid look at Rukia's bare breasts. (Also, Rukia's job is to fight and purify big scary monsters. They have magical healing in the series, but I don't think her skin is either perfect or indeed silky.) To further illustrate my point, here's one of my favourite exchanges in the entire 'fic. It's from the Monkey Sex in a Limo scene, and it crystallises the overwhelming feelings of a newly-wed couple:
“You’re an animal.” Rukia informs him, and he smiles, before he leans forward to lick her into agreeing with him.
Within one minute, Rukia is squealing, and Ichigo pulls down his pants and boxers to reveal his hardened state to her.
“I’m your animal.” He says in a sexy voice, and Rukia nods in agreement.
“Give it to me Ichigo, don’t wait anymore!” She tells him, and he smiles.
“Your wish is my command.” He tells her, and he quickly penetrates his bride, but not before feeling a great happiness.
Savour that with me, dear reader, and may our hearts swell in happiness equal to Ichigo's. The author can't decide if this is softcore porn or intense lovemaking, and it falls flat in both instances.
The demonisation of Orihime seems to speak of a larger strain of unconscious misogyny in Inner Hollow. Either women are badass wife candidates like Rukia, or they are irredeemable, idiotic sluts like Orihime. You people and your quaint little categories, no kidding. One of the more insidious examples of this is the way Rukia loses her personal identity the moment she marries Ichigo: she becomes "Kurosaki-san", never mind she's from a noble family, so if anything, Ichigo should take her name. Thereafter, she is subsumed in "the Kurosakis", or referred to as "Ichigo's wife" by characters who personally know her and would call her by her given name, hitched or no.
There is also the hilarity-inducing twist of I Am Your Villain's Undisclosed Sibling, Come to Avenge In His Wake. Esteemed reader, I LOL'd. When the author ran dry with story ideas, she pulled an antagonist out of her armpit, slapped a canon name on him, and hoped the audience would be distracted by all the vague smut splattered across the story. Furthermore, apparently one of Rukia's bankai powers is making all the girls horny for her. (Yes, Mashiro gets her to suck face with her before her wedding. Yes, Rukia has bankai, and whoo boy, it makes the coffee and walks the dog and you'll never wish for another shounen superpower again.) But she's not gay, oh no, we can't have that.
As an aside, this 'fic features more random fornication between characters barely connected to the plot than any other fan story I've ever seen. It's not even hot.
In summary, this story is lacking in drama, unfunny when you're supposed to laugh, full of clunky exposition, and infested with commas. The core plot sounds like a good story on occasion: some of the twists that come from Rukia's acquisition of a Hollow would be interesting. It's the execution that cripples them. Add to that the organised torture of a character whose only link to her canon self is her love for the hero, the exaltation of another very well-rounded, flawed character to Kickass Sex God, St. Rukia, and the rampant "sexy" dirty talk spewed by the frolicking Hollows, and the sum comes up too low.
All in all, I must caution you to stay away from this one. It is my steadfast opinion that even the deepest drek can contain seeds of genius. I'm sure individual parts of this 'fic could grow into healthy story saplings in better circumstances, but in this case, that is not to be.