Happy Friday the 13th, all! I hope everyone is avoiding bad luck so far today. If you have, you’re luckier than me, because the most unfortunate thing happened when I sat down to read the graphic novel trilogy The Good Neighbors: I discovered a Holly Black series that I simply did not like.
I’ve been slowly working my way through the backlog of Speculate! episodes, and in one older episode the hosts were discussing The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. It wasn’t until recently that I got to read it for myself and experience Black’s fascinating take on vampires. When I first started the novel, I thought that maybe it was a dig at Twilight and its sparkly, essentially non-threatening vampires, but as I read on, it didn’t seem to be specifically targeting Twilight—which is nice, because despite Twilight’s many faults, I think there’s enough room in the world for both Twilight’s sparkly vampires and the more traditional Dracula-esque vampires. What Coldtown‘s vampires seem to be critiquing is the idea of romanticizing danger. As Holly Black said in an interview with Parade:
For me, I think one of the key things I wanted to explore in the book is the idea of our love of danger—and what we do in the face of it on such a staggering scale. That’s where the reality TV aspect of it came. We like watching people get hurt—on TV, on YouTube. There’s that vicarious thrill. I wanted to take that to an extreme and see what happened. What would it really be like if we had a world with vampires in it, given our iPhone, camera-obsessed culture? We like the idea that we could get close to danger and survive. And also the idea that someone else could get close to danger and not survive.
The book does have some potentially meatier themes about being a human vs. being a monster, but unfortunately, much of it wasn’t followed through in a way I found satisfying. What I did find satisfying was the ways in which Black uses her vampires to examine the horrifying consequences of the media sensationalism that we have to deal with in the real world.
Spoilers for almost the whole story below the jump.
It seems that I’m forever rereading fairy stories for my Throwback Thursdays, but today is not going to be an exception. The only really surprising thing about my topic for this post is that Lady Geek Girl didn’t get to it first.
Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black came out in 2002 and was the formative YA novel of my teenage years. I think I may even say without overstepping that it was the formative novel of my entire friend group. What about it left such an impression?
Slight spoilers after the jump.
A lot of media in speculative fiction has characters with magical powers, and those characters are often introduced in opposition to characters with no magical powers whatsoever. Think of the X-Men, whose powers are an allegory for discrimination and prejudice in the real world. When a universe has both powered and non-powered people, the story should, at some point, discuss the implications of a world where one side has an inherent ability to do something that the other side will never be able to do. Unfortunately, many stories never venture into the conflict between powered and non-powered people, and the ones that do don’t manage it very well.
Recently, a friend and I were talking about writing a story together, and since we’re both very into fantasy, we decided to write something with magical characters. However, we quickly ran into a problem: there are… way too many stories with magical elements out there. (As you might know from this column.) So what was the best way to build a world that had magic, but wasn’t cliché or boring? And if you’re building a magical system from scratch, what was the best way to set limits for your magical characters? I looked at some of my own favorite genre stories to get an idea of what I was getting into. Some appeared to have pretty concrete magical worldbuilding, and some appeared to have more nebulous worldbuilding. Both worked, but which was better?
Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for. (x)
Holly Black is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I was delighted when I heard that her most recent book, The Darkest Part of the Forest, would mark a return to stories about faeries. While her most recent works dealt with organized magical crime (The Curse Workers series) and vampires (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown), I associate her so strongly with faerie tales that I was eager to snatch up this new one when it hit the shelves. Unsurprisingly, it was an exciting and fresh take on old faerie-story themes.
Some spoilers for the novel below!
In fantasy worlds where the whole population knows magic exists, but only some minority of people are magic users, things tend to go one of two ways. The first is that those with magic use their power to become something of a separate, usually higher, class, like the Aes Sedai in the Wheel of Time series. Even the Avatar universe implies that there’s at least social if not legal inequality between benders and non-benders. The other is that magic is criminalized, because how dare that threatening minority have the same freedoms as regular folk? As a story device, I don’t deny that this is believable; after all, the majority does tend to react with fear and suspicion toward those who are different. However, this concept is often used as an allegorical stand-in for other minorities who have historically been denied human rights, which doesn’t always work out narratively.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about authors who use their novels as religious allegories, but many authors also use various magical diseases and abilities as a stand-in for many touchy political or personal issues.
In J.K. Rowling’s case, she switched out a real disease for an imaginary one: lycanthropy. The werewolves that populate Harry Potter were meant to be an allegory for the real-life suffering of people with HIV and AIDS, who, up until recently, were treated with contempt and suspicion by the general populace due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what caused the disease and what the disease did. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s Remus Lupin’s life in a nutshell. In the 2008 court case between JKR and Steve Vander Ark over the HP Lexicon, Rowling said:
I know that I’ve said publicly that Remus Lupin was supposed to be on the H.I.V. metaphor. It was someone who had been infected young, who suffered stigma, who had a fear of infecting others, who was terrified he would pass on his condition to his son. And it was a way of examining prejudice, unwarranted prejudice towards a group of people. And also, examining why people might become embittered when they’re treated that unfairly.
I’ve read books by Holly Black before, namely her “Modern Faerie Tale” series: Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside. While I liked them well enough (I was all about Prince Valiant, actually), my one complaint about them was that they weren’t particularly gripping. I kept picking up Ironside and putting it back down, and it took me far longer than it should have to finish it. So when I got White Cat, the first book in “The Curse Workers” trilogy, from the library, I thought it’d be much the same. I settled down for some light reading at around three in the morning (don’t judge me) and didn’t go to sleep until six—after I’d turned the final page, found out the next book wouldn’t be out for a year, and paced around my apartment until I’d exhausted my brain into shutting up.
I’d been worried it wasn’t going to be gripping; White Cat had a grip more inescapable than a particularly vicious anaconda.