We’ve talked about a lot of topics since the inception of this Magical Mondays column—religion and worldbuilding, worldbuilding in general—and inherent in these discussions is the idea that if the magic in a story grows organically out of a real understanding of culture, history, and religion, especially if the story is set in the real world, then the magic (and story) makes more sense. Inclusion of culture in a real, non-appropriative way can only help, not hinder, a magical system. To that end, today we’re writing about a book that really exemplifies what magic could be like if more people thought more deeply about magic.
Enter Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski. Some slight spoilers below the jump.
My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story. Of course, I never really believed him when he said it. Now I know my uncle was right. There is magic in a story. Real magic.
Hammer of Witches is the story of Baltasar Infante, a young lad growing up in Spain in 1492. Baltasar’s parents were Jewish, and he lives with his aunt and uncle, who tell him stories of the great Moorish hero, Amir al-Katib. Baltasar’s not sure if he believes all these stories, but one day the Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting arm of the Spanish Inquisition, kidnap him and demand that Baltasar tell them where al-Katib is. Baltasar, of course, doesn’t know, and thus begins his adventure.
Magic in Hammer of Witches lies with the Storytellers—people who can make any story come to life if they know it and can fully comprehend its meaning. If you know the story of the unicorn, you can summon a unicorn, and if you know the story of a demon, you can summon a demon. Of course, fully comprehending a story varies, because everyone has their own interpretation of a story. But in this world, your interpretation of a story can actually affect the creature you summon. Take the unicorn, for example, which differs across cultures—Baltasar’s companion Catalina, who’s Spanish aristocracy and thus presumably Catholic, summons a unicorn as the Western world might know it. Baltasar, however, listens to Jinniyah, an Islamic ifrit, and is encouraged to summon the karkadann instead—the Persian version of the same legend.
Interpretation comes down to things as fundamental as gender as well—when Catalina tries to share her repertoire of spells with Baltasar, he’s at first unable to master them because he has no experience with any of her stories. Catalina tells him about sirens and mermaids, both legends that are based off of men’s fears, and tells Baltasar that someday he will have to learn to summon things that he himself can’t relate to.
“If you spend time looking at enough stories, you’ll find that most female creatures are extremely frightening. Apparently men find us incredibly scary.”
I had never thought about it that way. Smacking a fly off my neck, I said, “I’m not sure I like that interpretation.”
“It assumes that all men are scared of women.”
“I don’t find you scary.”
Catalina broke into laughter as she continued her hike down the beach. “Oh, don’t worry, Señor Infante! You will.”
The concept of stories themselves as magic is one that ties this entire novel together. What is a story about and what does a story mean to people? The story of the golem means different things to Catalina, to Baltasar, and to Jinniyah, so they each summon different versions of it, but is there a “right” version? Is the story of the sleeping princess a rosy fairytale or a loveless trap? (Baltasar thought it was romantic and Catalina thought it a trap, though you’ll have to read the book to see if their opinions changed by the end of it.) How much of a story is truth and how much is interpretation? And most importantly, what does the story of Amir al-Katib mean to Baltasar, who has hated and revered the man in equal parts throughout his young life?
Mlawski pulls from Jewish, Arabic, European, and Taíno mythologies to populate her world, and you don’t have to look far to see that she really researched every last detail in her books. If there’s one thing I would complain about, however, it’s that at times it comes off as a bit too much of a history lesson. Mlawski is a teacher by trade, and says that her teaching experience with students of different backgrounds has inspired her to tell stories about people of different backgrounds than in the usual “monochrome” stories. That’s something that I can definitely support, so I found it easy to let the occasionally lecturing prose pass me by. Your mileage may vary, though.
Hammer of Witches is a fantastic example of religion, culture, and story combining to great magical effect. Go pick it up at your local library or bookstore today!