Three reviews - all books with different 'fantasies', or relationships with fantasy, at their heart: The Summer I Became a Nerd, The Black Witch and The Empire of the Dead. One's a romp. One's a long-overdue provocation. One's kind of a mess. Enjoy!
The Black Witch by Laurie Forest (2017)
A very traditional fantasy with a thought-provoking, revisionist twist.
The Black Witch has a really, really interesting premise: it full-on tackles the fact that many fantasy tropes are inherently racist. That's not only a telling comment on the radical polarisation of real-world politics, but, within the scope of genre, Witch takes a fascinating approach to fantasy's racial essentialism. All Orcs are evil. All Drasnians are sneaky. All Elves are good. Fantasy is grounded in simple, unchallenged 'genetic' truths, with the exceptions (whaddup, Drizzt) there to prove the rule.
Black Witch has a completely classic fantasy world with a heroic human - basically the unappreciated secretly-hawt princess trope, rampaging hordes of Evil, the true religion, Fate and Destiny, a war against the darkness, and, of course, the chosen ones of light and darkness. But, as is made rapidly clear: every part of this is completely subjective.
This is - above everything else - brilliant. Contrast this to, say, my beloved Belgariad. It begins, as we know, with a lengthy and detailed history of the conflict between the good guys and the bad guys, and the formula/prophesy that will resolve it all. The prophesy is literal and objective. The good guys and the bad guys are indisputably connected with sides of the formula. This turns into a nationalist, and racially-linked, alignment. All Drasnians are sneaky, but they're also on the good side, so their sneakiness is forgiven. All Murgos are sneaky, but they're on the bad side, so are unforgiveable. Even if you find a 'good' Murgo, they're still not Good - so fire at will. Eddings is particularly morally dubious because everyone involved is human. Tolkien, et al, at least take the effort putting the bad guys into different, fictional races. It is easier to believe that all Orcs are evil because, well, they're invented that way - so why not? If the existence of millions (if not billions) of creatures with free will and personality conflicts with the possibility of independent thought, well, ignore that, because then you'll feel a little squeamish about Legolas' body count.
So, as a concept, The Black Witch is absolutely cracking. An idea that the prophesy isn't objective (or, psst, even true), and that entire races can't be bucketed into a single stereotype. As an execution, however, The Black Witch is, perhaps ironically, grounded in formula. Elloren is the chosen one. She possesses that brilliant dichotomy of background found only in YA and epic fantasy: she’s vastly important, but also grows up in a completely forgotten, naive backwater. She’s happy in said backwater, but, wait! Her Fate calls, and she’s off to come of age at the centre of everything. The problem is, Elloren is the grand-daughter of the titular Black Witch, the previous Chosen One who successfully triumphed over the ‘evil’ races. That makes Elloren a lightning rod for controversy: be it the few underground liberal elements, the bloodline-obsessed aristocracy, possible suitors, definite rivals, etc. And, of course, Elloren doesn’t have any magic herself. Or does she? Etc. etc.
As Elloren navigates the predictable waters of good-bad boy and bad-good boy and friends that aren’t and rivals that are, we learn two things: once past the initial concept, this plot is not particularly surprising, and Elloren herself is a bit of a wet rag. Fortunately, because the plot is so familiar, we, as readers, know her that her naïveté and self-doubt will inevitably resolve and she'll get around to making good choices. Plus, as routine as Elloren’s adventures are, they still take place in interesting surroundings, underpinned by a fairly radical interpretation of epic world-building. Elloren learns about history, then then perspective - all in a secondary world sense, but still, a process that establishes a) the power of critical thinking and b) the lack of recognition of subjectivity in any other fantasy world. The Black Witch is unsubtle, and Elloren's wibbliness can truly drag on, but this book should serve as a long-overdue slap to the system. Well worth reading.
And relax. Whew.
Here's a new series from one of my recent faves. Basically your traditional fantasy/heist blend, but set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. In this case, the battle between Good and Evil has already happened - and Evil won. I’m a big, big fan of this sort of post-teleological fantasy (see also: Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair, as well as Tucker’s other work). Epic fantasy, as part of its immense, interest-only mortgage to Tolkien, focuses too heavily towards definite conclusions.
If you'll forgive the aside, the idea of definite conclusions leads us into two traps:
- The definite part. The myth of the conclusive resolution, in which good and evil compare their scoresheets, shake hands, and one leaves the field forever. Of all the escapist elements in fantasy, this might be the most persuasive - and the most impossible. Not just the idea that Team Evil will pack up and piss off, but that cosmological tidiness exists to that extent. You're either For or Against; Winner or Loser; Rewarded or Punished. You either get the lady hobbit and the farm, or pushed into lava. There's no place for, say, Boromir or Denethor - the confused people that did good things for bad reasons, or bad things for good reasons. Faramir lives, but only because the 'confusion' - the bits of him that said 'maaaybe my dad wasn't all wrong?' were literally burned from him. The definiteness of endings in epic fantasy is deliberately polarising, forcing the reader to see things in shades of black and white.
- The conclusions part. The myth that the story ends: that all progress is accomplished, that things are wrapped up for good (and Good). Epic fantasy portrays a struggle that is not just symbolic, but capsulised. All good and all evil rush the field at once: it may be a hectic 90 minutes, but afterwards, things are settled. Life is, of course, not like that: the Royals are only World Champions until the first pitch of the next season; the War to End All Wars only lasts until the next gunshot. You can never let your guard down, or, conversely, you can never assume the job is done. On one hand, there's no sense of human improvement - this is literally the best we can ever be. On the other, there's no responsibility to the next generation - if all that is important is the conflict right now, one's only and overriding responsibility is to win it: all costs will be forgiven. Life ain't like that: epic fantasy is, indeed, fantasy because it teaches us a narrative where our actions are devoid of repercussions.
Which is to say, although definite conclusions are tidy, appealing, heart-warming fairytales - and have their place in the genre - I'm always interested in stories that don't take success for granted, and take the time to think about the after.
In the case of Empire, our heroes are the scattered and shattered fragments of Team Good(ish). They're the children - not all legitimate - of gods, and are struggling with that flickering remnant of divinity inside them. Does that mean they have a calling? Does a calling exist after the call has already resolved? At what point are you still responsible for a lost cause? In this case, to the reader's good fortune, our bedraggled heroes decide to reunite for one last swing of the bat. Despite my carefree usage of the poncy word ‘post-teleological’, Empire is simply an absolute hoot. It is a great world with a twisty-turny plot, and Tucker's knack for unusual and compelling magic systems is on full display. Highly recommended for anyone seeking out fun adventure in a non-standard fantasy world: Leigh Bardugo and Scott Lynch fans especially.
The core story is the now-familiar Princess Diaries/Geek Girl variant: Madelyne is a super-hot, super-smart, super-popular, super-cheerleader who, at the age of 17, is struggling with HER SECRET NERD LIFE. She has her football boyfriend and her cool friends, but really, all she wants is to talk about comics and do, you know, nerd stuff. What's a super-hot, super-smart, super-popular, super-cheerleader with supportive friends and a great family to do?!
First, let's get it out there: the book has problems, but an unsympathetic approach to nerdery ain't one of them. We can put down the geeki torches, as our painfully-fragile subcultural ego goes unbruised. The portrayal of comics (and science fiction) culture is genuine and sympathetic. Summer's best moments capture the fun of burying yourself under longboxes or the glorious moment when you walk off the street and into a room full of like-minded (and dressed!) fantasy geeks. That's pretty lovely to read.
Second, let's not escape that point - the book does have problems. Madelyne's complex and self-destructive double-life is rooted in a Dramatic Event. Steel yourself. When she was 10, she dressed up as a comic book character - and people made fun of her! Which is bonkers. THAT'S WHAT 10 YEAR OLDS DO. Both the 'dressing badly' and the 'teasing mercilessly'. If everyone that wore a TMNT outfit in their pre-pubescent years - or got laughed at! - spent 7 years with festering angst, we'd all be living in bunkers by now. Which is to say: we never really got why Madelyne was hiding her True Self, because as Dramatic Events go, this is pretty weak stuff.
Second point second, that (non)Dramatic Event is representative of an even greater problem: this book has zero externally generated conflict. Literally the sole issue here is that Madelyne doesn't want to tell people she's into comics. But because this is self-inflicted, there are no consequences if she fails - something that's immediately apparently to the reader. No one else cares. No one else will ever care. People go out of their way, from quite early in the book, to point out how little they could ever potentially care. Only Madelyne cares, which makes everything - especially in the case of global overwhelming uncaringness - well... her own fault.
Second point third, there's one exception to the above: Madelyne's love interest. Who is genuinely appalling. Clearly Logan is not meant to be the 'conflict' - he's the reward. But he is also exactly the sort of geek boy that we should all be striving to bury in a shallow (or deep) grave. A 'nice guy' that gets angry about the 'friendzone' and establishes the romance around his terms, and his own desires. Let's rattle through this, shall we?
- He insists she 'out herself' by entering comic book stores publicly before he'll deal with her. Listen, I’m the first to agree that she's making some dumb life-choices, but they’re also her choices to make - not his. Nope.
- He makes her apologise to him on live radio. That's after airing their relationship grievances on his show, and getting random strangers to weigh in on them. Dealbreaker.
- He introduces LARPing to her by wanging on about his LARP character's adventures to her for 90 minutes. No one wants to hear your character's adventures at length. Especially if they weren't there, don't care, didn't ask, and have no idea what you're on about. Red flag..
- He chooses her first LARP character for her. Isn't that nice? No, wait, it is annoying, and a terrible way to get someone to feel any sort of ownership for their super-awkward new extroverted gaming experience. He also makes her character into his character's girlfriend - again, without even asking first. (This is before they're together, so... every extra eew, stacked together as an eewburger) So, like it or not, she now has to act as his girlfriend for an entire evening, in a room full of strangers. Surprise!
- The first LARP? The one he wanged on about at length, made her dress up, go full Avatar makeup, and then attend as his 'girlfriend experience'? Logan immediately has emofeelz with his ex-girlfriend, abandons Maddy alone, and then, upon returning... leaves, making her go with him. That's a lot of shit to drag someone through, only to ruin her night. This is not ok.
- Maddy leaves her journal with him. He annotates it. We only see two of the annotations, but one is him mansplaining a comic book to her. The other is presumptive romantic silliness. He does this before they are together. Not to run with the metaphor, but literally overwriting someone else's history is not a romantic gesture. If he really, really had to 'well, actually...' her thoughts on an X-Men spinoff, use a fucking post-it. “Here, I left you my diary” “Thanks, I added a few comments and suggested edits.” WHAT THE WHAT.
It goes on. And on. There's a particular vision of the 'chivalric geek 'presented here: the fedora-wearing, boombox-blasting bastard child of John Hughes movies. Logan is working to earn Maddie, but he deprives her of all agency in the process. He's off gathering Boyfriend Experience Points; she's the reward he gets for levelling up. And, god forbid, if his conniving, presumptive assholery didn’t work out? It would’ve been her fault for not appreciating how ‘nice’ he was. Maddy spends this entire book trying her damndest to be her own worst enemy, yet, somehow her boyfriend is even worse.
WHICH (deep breath) leaves me confused. Conceptually, I'm all for the sub-genre of YA/MG fiction about ‘owning your inner geek’. Summer clearly appreciates and respects geekery, the book’s few moments of empathetic passion are when Maddie is actually doing something that she loves. But, to some degree, that only makes the book’s problems more puzzling. Here is a young woman desperate to achieve the barest minimum of self-actualisation: to indulge herself in her secret passion. But the conclusion - where said passion is sidelined - presented merely as the road for her to achieve... what? The loss of identity to an overwhelming boyfriend? ... is depressing.
Love what you love, folks. And love it how you want to love it. Don't ever let the Logans of this world tell you how to love anything (especially not them).