The Flirting with the Zodiac series focuses on a different alien shifter species in each book. With the fifth installment, Lions Will Tame Leopards, we meet the big cat shifters of Rasalas. We saw them briefly in Riding the Dragon, but here, Nix and the gang are running the show.
Obviously, each of the Zodiac books is also tied to one of the zodiac constellations. The shifter choices are usually tied to the constellation. For Leo, the Lion, lions are the obvious choice.
I’ll talk a little bit more about the landscape and the decision to include leopard shifters as well in another post, but one of the fun things we all know about lions is that they are incredibly social creatures. In fact, whereas most big cats tend to be solitary, lions form prides. They’re more like wolves in that sense.
It’s little wonder that humans feel affinity with the so-called king of the jungle then. We also have complex social structures and live together in groups. And we like to think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, much like lions are in their environment.
Naturally, this also provides an excellent arena for exploring polyamory. So that’s exactly what I did.
The Pride as a Harem
We’re probably familiar with the “harem” genre of romance (or the reverse harem). I’m familiar with it from anime/manga circles. The basic premise is that you have one individual who ends up being the “centrepiece” of the group. Usually, this is the single male that all the females seem to want. In a queer version, it might be the one male that all the other men want or the woman all the other women want. In a reverse harem, we usually see the woman surrounded by a bevy of handsome men waiting on her and foot—or, in the gay version, a “bottom” being attended to by many “tops.”
Obviously, it would have been pretty easy to put Lions Will Tame Leopards into this format. It would have been even easier because I picked an alpha-omega world structure. All I needed to do was put the alpha at the center. Or perhaps every other member of the pride could be an alpha and we have Nix as the omega everyone is after.
The problem I had with the “harem” though is that it’s structured on everyone involved having a relationship with the person at the center of the web. Harem storylines usually involve some sort of competition between the other members; some are friends, but jealousy often factors in.
A lion pride might look like a harem, but it’s actually something a little bit different. And that intrigued me—I wanted to look at it as a family structure.
The Pride as a Family or Clan
We used to think that wolf packs were constructed of an alpha male, a “beta” male as his second-in-command, and some females, with their pups. Now, we see that wolf packs in the wild tend to be a reproductive male-female couple with their offspring. In short, they’re more like a multigenerational nuclear family.
The lion pride does not truly follow either model. It’s more like a matriarchal clan. It includes several females with their cubs. Male cubs are chased out at a certain point, while female cubs get to stay with their natal pride. Males arrive from “outside,” ensuring genetic diversification.
So: we have a bunch of moms and grandmas with their kiddos. The males, once they’re chased off, tend to be nomadic, until they find a pride they can “take over.”
Why This Works
This makes some sense: lionesses tend to be smaller than male lions, thus meaning they are more successful when they hunt in a group. Lionesses also tend to do the, ahem, lion’s share of the work in hunting and killing, even when males are around. And having several females work together also reduces the “burden” of being pregnant and caring for cubs.
We see remnants of this behavior in housecats: feral cats will form clowders, groups of cats that live and work together to survive. We also see cats engage in communal parenting. Ever had a new mama cat drop off her kittens? She’s not just proud of them; she trusts you to take care of them while she goes and hunts. Female cats will adopt kittens readily, and they will take turns caring for them.
One could argue this is also the natural orientation of humans. It takes a hell of a lot of work to raise a human child. Our society tries to put all that work on two individuals—the biological parents. But if we look at cats and lions, we can see a very different model emerging.
Adopting This Family Structure for Lions Will Tame Leopards
It made sense to me to create a world where the “pride” structure is the norm. After all, these are lion shifters. Why would they replicate the Euro-Western nuclear family?
And thus Rasalan society is based on the formation of prides. A pride usually forms around an alpha and several omegas, which then creates a clan structure. The society is thus still patriarchal, but it is definitely not replicating the nuclear family.
In fact, in this book, we meet a “found family” pride composed of four omegas and one alpha. Regulus is certainly the “center” of the pride: he is both the alpha and the new president of Rasalan society. His pride has formed around him from his bodyguards, his innermost circle of spies and assassins. They are responsible for his safety and security.
Isn’t That a Harem?
The difference here is that each of the omegas also have a relationship with each other, in addition to their alpha. In the harem setup, it is usually presumed that each individual outside the center is monogamous with the individual at the center. This is one form of a poly relationship, but only the individual at the center of the “web” is truly engaged in any sort of polyamory.
Since each of the omegas are entangled with each other as well (both sexually and romantically), the relationship becomes truly polyamorous. Every individual involved is in love with every other member of the pride.
This allows for deeper bonds and a more cooperative environment. The lions have litters of cubs—anywhere from one to four at a time—so cooperative child-rearing makes perfect sense. Four kittens and one omega? No thanks! Even one can be a handful. Having other omegas (and the alpha) on hand can help lessen the burden on the new omega parent. If not all the omegas are pregnant or birthing around the same time, then the intensive care of newborn infants can be divvied up more easily.
Polyamory Threatens the Nuclear Family
I was interested in this kind of alternative to the nuclear family. The nuclear family is not natural for most human beings. Most of us lived in extended families until relatively recently. Grandparents, if they survived that long, would be on hand to help with childcare. Siblings would often remain in the same village, so children could move from relative’s house to relative’s house to receive care.
We still see this structure in many parts of the world, especially where poverty is high. You’re more likely to stay on the “family land” or with the clan if housing is expensive or land is scarce. Here in North America and in Europe, we’re seeing a return to this structure, as more younger people stay at home with their parents for extended periods. As pension plans begin buying up houses, forcing younger people to become permanent renters and nuking the “American dream,” we’re likely going to see the trend continue.
This has advantages for everyone, actually. A younger couple can receive assistance and stable living conditions. They can contribute to the household, ensuring a higher standard of living for the elderly. And they can provide care to older parents as they continue to age in place or if they become ill. In turn, grandparents would be on-hand to provide assistance and advice during child rearing.
Deconstructing the Patriarchal Capitalist Dream
Yet Western society tells us this is pathological. Millennials and Gen Z who don’t leave the “leave the nest” are failures. Their parents feel pressure to boot them out—so they can continue saving for retirement and “enjoy” being alone again.
This is pressure from a capitalist society that wants us to reproduce in miserable conditions. This society wants to isolate us into nuclear family units where we have to “do everything” by ourselves. Yet, it’s pretty clear from historical and other cultural contexts, that this just isn’t how humanity works.
The “move out-get your own house-establish your own family” logic is counterintuitive to how much care human infants need. It’s little wonder that younger people are delaying childbearing or even deciding to go child-free. It’s too much work in a society that asks you to do it all with no compensation.
Miserable, Stressed People Are Vulnerable
If the point of life is reproduction, why do we make it so damn difficult? We are under enormous pressure to reproduce, then systematically yank all the supports out from under ourselves with these sorts of cultural narratives.
Obviously, the answer is that taking away supports leaves us alone and vulnerable. Overburdened parents pay for daycare and put themselves back in poverty. Or they must take time off and also live in poverty. In turn, their children do not get advantages such as good food, educational opportunities, and so on. That contributes to poorer outcomes that affect them for the rest of their lives. In turn, these poorly educated, poverty-stressed individuals become the next generation of exploitable workers, ready to be chewed up by the capitalistic machine.
That’s why capitalism buys up houses to rent them back to us at rates higher than the mortgages we don’t qualify for, all while screaming about how Millennials and Gen Z have “failed” because they’re staying at home with their parents instead of sacrificing themselves to new feudalism. Staying home is smart. Capitalism does not want us to be smart.
The same is true of the falling birth rate. Western society is clanging the alarm bells about how dangerously low the birth rate is, but at the same time has conspired to make reproduction and the raising of children the most stressful, miserable experience possible. They are raising the alarm because capitalism is going to face a crisis if people “outsmart” the system by “failing” to reproduce.
Obviously, the family structure presented in Lions presents an alternative. We thus see monogamy exposed for what it is as well: another insistence of the machine designed to ensure parents remain as isolated and vulnerable as possible.
Lions and Leopards: A Dialogue on Monogamy vs. Polyamory
Some people do prefer monogamy. This is fine. They can form other relationships—with elders, siblings, friends, childless couples, and so on—that will help provide the extended care network needed to raise happy, healthy children.
Polyamory is another “solution,” one that Lions Will Tame Leopards demonstrates. In fact, the text wrangles with this a bit through the lion/leopard divide. In nature, lions and leopards are diametrically opposed. Lions are social, pack hunters that form prides and work cooperatively. Leopards, like most other big cats, are loners. A mother leopard will care for her cubs. Her territory may overlap with that of a couple male leopards, and they will form quasi-monogamous pairs, although they rarely encounter each other outside of breeding.
Rasalas features both lions and leopards, and this antagonism serves as the basis of the leopards’ oppression in Rasalan society. The lions, being supremely social, see leopards as strange. The leopards’ solitary ways see them cast as suspicious and untrustworthy. They’re thought to be highly individualistic, even selfish and cruel. Lions, by contrast, are focused on the well-being of the group. They treat the leopards as second-class citizens on the basis of this, extending tax breaks and other “benefits” on the basis of family status. Leopards usually end up impoverished, leading to structural inequality.
Nix is not a lion; he is a leopard. Yet he becomes part of a lion pride. He struggles with some aspects of the pride—such as commitment to them, the intensely social nature of it. At the same time, he finds more support and certainly appreciates his fellow pride members once he has kittens to care for.
Using Lions Will Tame Leopards to Look at Human Monogamy under Capitalism
Monogamy is presented as the ideal and the norm in Western society. We see harems and polygynous relationships as rife with abuse, as a form of sexual slavery. (And often, under patriarchal control, they may as well be.)
Yet this insistence on monogamy has seemingly intensified. You might have seen social media posts which show jealousy as normal or even desirable. It’s not uncommon to hear of people stalking their partner’s social media and demanding that they stop following particular accounts or interacting with certain people. Any thinking about or communicating with an ex is tantamount to cheating. People advise others to dump their partners because there’s no way you can “just be friends” with someone you dated or fucked in the past.
This is abusive behavior, serving to isolate people. But it’s presented as desirable because monogamy is the ideal in this society.
Again, polyamory presents an alternative to this hyper-focused monogamy. It allows relationships to be more open and fluid, which some people would call “cheating.” It’s not for everyone, but it does offer us an alternative to the intensive monogamy/cheating narrative.
After all, if it’s all out in the open and all partners have agreed to it, it’s not really cheating, now is it? Thus, within a polyamorous structure, the issue of being unfaithful recedes. It’s not necessarily a thing that is possible. That’s not to say it’s without its faults, but it certainly alleviates all this monogamistic nonsense about what counts as cheating and what doesn’t.
What’s the Difference between Platonic and Romantic Love?
The cheating thing becomes more obvious when we look at some of the intensive monogamy sentiments. According to some people, simply following the account of another attractive person is cheating. You don’t need to talk or interact with this person. Just looking at their pictures is somehow cheating on your partner.
What about close emotional friendships? Platonic love could be a form of “cheating” in this hyper-monogamous state. And people do talk about “emotional cheating” now as well.
This brings up the sticky wicket of the line between platonic and romantic love. When does a bromance move from being “just friends” to “being lovers”? At what point do we consider our closest friendships cheating on our romantic partners?
This begins to sound a little bonkers—and for good reason. It is.
There’s No Need for Labels
In Lions Will Tame Leopards, we can see this demonstrated, to an extent, in the relationship Nix has with Bern. Bern and Nix are both omegas, and they are both members of Regulus’s pride. They are involved with each other sexually, but, more importantly, on that more platonic level. They have, to some extent, a bromance. But what is the line between platonic love and romantic love? Is it the fact they have sex? Is it the fact they’re together in this pride?
Perhaps there’s relatively little difference. Although they are involved sexually, and potentially romantically, I’d like to think of Bern and Nix’s relationship as sort of the ultimate bromance. These two are friends before anything else. That they sometimes sleep together is a bonus.
Nix is involved sexually with every member of the pride, yet we might still see some of his relationships as more romantic and others as more platonic. And this is not a problem within the polyamorous family structure. Nix and Wei might decide they are sexually incompatible but remain friends and love each other deeply. Whether this is platonic, romantic, or sexual love is no longer an issue within this structure. Love is love, and all the concerns about “cheating”—whether romantic or emotional or sexual—drift off into the background. Intense feelings of love no longer need labels as such; they are allowed to spring forth and simply exist within this structure.
Why a “Found Family” for Lions Will Tame Leopards?
In Rasalan society, prides are formed around the alpha (not the omega), so descent would be traced through the alpha (the sire) versus the omega. Thus, Rasalan lions don’t perfectly mirror the family formation of our Earth lions.
This made it simpler to allow for the “found family” aspect of the book to come through. Lion prides usually feature multiple females, most of whom are related. If I were to replicate that for Rasalan society, then Wei, Bern, and Zo would likely be siblings; Nix and Regulus would be the only outsiders.
With only the alpha at the center, the pride was able to form around non-related individuals. That’s more similar to what a lot of human polyamory looks like at this moment. Patriarchal-capitalist society generally tried to overpower and obliterate matriarchal family formation, as evidenced in the Americas among Indigenous Peoples. Again, the goal of this was to isolate and exploit.
Many queer people also resonate with “found family,” having been rejected first from their natal families and then from society at large. And the found family trope, I think, is especially important not just for queer individuals or Indigenous people looking to get back to the matriarchal roots that were disrupted by colonialism. I think it’s important in the context of escaping abusive families.
Isolation Breeds Violence and Abuse
The patriarchal nuclear family perpetrates abusive situations, because it creates so much isolation and stress among individual members. In essence, it breeds violence by removing coping mechanisms. It’s easy to see how overwhelmed parents might hit their children, unable to vent frustration any other way and with no one else to keep them in line. We don’t condone that, but it’s not hard to understand how we get there. Other forms of abuse and violence can also be seen as natural outflows of our current social structure.
This is not to say any other structure is a utopia; rather, it reduces stresses and creates more checks and balances, which can help to curb these tendencies. So the explosion of people now rejecting abusive relationships with their family is not a rejection of family per se. It is a rejection of the idea that blood is always thicker, that we are somehow bound to unhealthy relationships and perpetuating abusive structures and behaviors.
It speaks less to a rejection of blood ties than to a rejection of the obsessive focus on them, to the exclusion of other relationships. That speaks also to the “intensive monogamy” issue. We ask our partners to be so faithful to us, rejecting almost every other social relationship.
This is unhealthy, abnormal. The rejection of our abusive relations with parents or other relatives is a rejection of this obsession with them. It is a reclaiming of more normative and healthier relations. And it is a rejection of the larger social structure that encourages abuse and violence.
Discovering the Alternatives in Lions Will Tame Leopards
I think that’s why I wanted to ensure that, as much as it differs from the “real” lion pride, the pride in Lions Will Tame Leopards was a found family. This society has experienced drastic shake-up and change, and Nix in particular is leaving an abusive “nuclear family” type situation. He is not rejecting family on the whole. He is rejecting the idea that blood relation is what makes family. And he is rejecting with it the nuclear family, monogamy, and the isolation and abuse that seem inherent in that structure.
In short, Lions Will Tame Leopards is a love letter not just to polyamory but to the ways it can help us rethink love, family, and so much more.