Banshee and the Sperm Whale by author Jake Camp
Thank you so much to author Jake Camp for providing me with a copy of his book in exchange for this honest review.
Banshee and the Sperm Whale is a truly once in a lifetime piece of literature. It has proven itself to be one of the most thought provoking and challenging books I’ve read in quite some time. To be completely honest, I read it weeks ago. I had to sit with it for a while and I’m still not fully ready to write this review. There is a lot to unpack and I will attempt to block off any spoilers toward the end of this review.
The novel begins with our protagonist, Martin. He’s planning his wedding but is also feeling very tempted to cheat on his fiance. He’s clearly having some inner struggles that he’s not ready to deal with in a healthy manner.
Then the story moves over to a storm taking place over a sea. This sea is in Martin’s brain and the entities manning the boat are his personified neurons. Chapters alternate between Martin’s external and internal lives with the story at sea being an allegory for him subconsciously working through his thoughts and emotions.
This is brilliant. Effing brilliant. The tension formed in this side of the book is intense and works perfectly in tandem with Martin’s actions. As his internal story struggles so do his external actions. As he makes poor choices out in the world the consequences affect his internal characters. It’s a marvelously astute extended metaphor that continues throughout the whole novel.
The title refers to two entities within the internal side of the story. Banshee is a sort of siren mermaid luring the neuron staffed ship to her shore. Sperm Whale is a literal sperm whale who gets caught up in the whole mess.
The external side of Banshee and the Sperm Whale does not stay fully grounded in reality as we know it. Aspects of science fiction or the supernatural do play a delightful part. This is when I really fell in love with this book. The way author Camp ties real life relationship drama into futuristic or even fantasy level technology will make you rethink your current relationships and how you deal with negative communication.
I could easily give this book a 5 star rating based on these chapters alone. And that brings me to some spoilers and why I struggled with how to review this book for a few weeks. Without spoiling anything directly I will say that there are some issues in the book that are problematic in regards to trans people. I have made it a policy on my site to down rate anything that is offensive in this way. However, this is by no means a 1 star book. It’s really great in many other ways. So I’m conflicted.
I had an email discussion with author Camp about my concerns and I can assure readers that his intentions do not appear to be malicious in any way. I was very pleased with Camp’s willingness to discuss dissenting opinions on his book and his maturity in defending his work without defending what could be considered offensive.
One of the signs that this book is truly remarkable is that there is so much to discuss and so many ways it could be read and interpreted. I truly hope that you pick up a copy and let me know how you felt about it.
Please stop reading here if you want to remain spoiler free. I’ll get into more of my reasoning in the following section but it will contain details that may ruin some surprise aspects of the novel.
Banshee and the Sperm Whale Spoilers ahead!
Most of my issues with the book take place on the internal side of the plot. The personified neurons are not my favorite sorts of characters to begin with. They are very typical alpha males driven by id and libido and not much else. Their sole goal in sailing to Banshee is to have sex with her. They want to get laid and they want to do it now, this meraid just happens to be the only viable choice for miles.
Against the captain’s orders they sail to Banshee and all the millions of them proceed to penetrate her mermaid vagina with whatever neurons call genitals. They are momentarily satisfied but the storm over the sea begins to worsen.
It is then revealed to them, dramatically and with nothing but ill intent that it wasn’t mermaid vagina that they entered but anus. Banshee isn’t a lady mermaid but a “tranny.” Bro neuron’s word not mine. The neurons are all sickened by this surprise.
Let’s pause for a few points. One, don’t say tranny, just don’t. Two, I fully understand that cis straight males would be shocked and even disgusted to discover they had sex with a male against their wishes. They have that right.
The problem I have is that this scene involves Banshee gloating in her trap. She’s proud that she tricked all of these dumb boys into falling for her ruse. This is the main problematic area. Trans people have been accused of performing these traps for as long as they’ve been out. These accusations have resulted in countless assaults and even murders and are nothing to take lightly.
I can understand that when writing from the perspective of this particular kind of cis straight male this reaction does make sense. What doesn’t make sense is why Banshee needs to be a trans person at all. In a book with fantastical elements the options are endless but this novel went in this direction by choice.
I have to point out one more problem with the treatment of Banshee’s character as trans. Near the very end peace is being made between Banshee and the Sperm Whale and she says “I’m sorry for pretending to be something I’m not.” That is to mean that she’s apologizing for pretending to be trans because being trans isn’t a real identity? If she is truly trans then she isn’t pretending to be female, she is female.
The whole thing read to me as transphobic and ignorant. No matter how much I thought about it I couldn’t get around that line. I hope you can see why I struggled with this and why I made the decision to knock an otherwise 5 star book down to 3. But I also hope that you see the merit in the other aspects of the story and can understand why I didn’t take one flaw of the book and use it to negate all of the good parts.
The best books are filled with conflicts both external and internal. Banshee and the Sperm Whale has both but goes even further to take those conflicts off of the page and instill them in the reader’s own psyche. I dealt with my own internal conflicts while thinking about this book and I hope you can see why that’s a big reason to try reading it yourself.
Author Camp responded to my review with understanding and has given me permission to post his reply so that all of you can see his thoughts about the character issues I outlined above. I appreciate so much his ability to discuss these matters and open a dialogue with anyone about difficult topics. I cannot stress enough how important it is to talk with people about these issues instead of immediately jumping to the worst conclusions about someone’s personal character because they may have said something you don’t agree with.
The following response does contain some spoilers.
Thanks again to Jake Camp for a book so thought provoking it stopped me in my tracks.
3/5 whales 🐳🐳🐳
For trans representation by a trans author check out If I Was Your Girl
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