A Darker Shade of Magic

There is something unique about London––all four of them. Kell casually calls the four worlds by their relationship to magic, grey for its absence, red for its richness, white for its drained look, and black for its purity, and each of them has a London in the exact same spot. Once, these cities lay open to each other, serving as a conduit from one world to the other, but those days have long since past. Now there are barriers. Black London locked away from the other three and its objects eliminated with gates erected between the other three so that only Antari can pass between them and strict prohibitions against transporting objects from where they belong.

Kell is one of two only two Antari (that he knows of) and thus serves the royal family of Red London, who also adopted him and raised him with their natural son, as a courier. The other Antari, Holland serves the same role for the throne of White London, a crueler and altogether more inhospitable place. But Kell is also a collector of miscellany from the other worlds, smuggling them into his own private collection and, from time to time, selling the trinkets to other collectors. Rhy insists this hobby will only lead to trouble, but Kell simply can’t help himself until his brother is proven correct.

In a White London tavern, Kell is contracted to carry a black stone to Red London, but, instead of a simple delivery, he is ambushed, wounded, and forced to make a sudden escape to Grey London where he stumbles into a street thief named Lila Bard whose help he will need if he is to live. To make matters worse, though, is that the stone seems to have a mind of its own and a desire to possess sentient beings to achieve its ends, whatever they might be.

A Darker Shade of Magic bears some of the marks of being the first book in a trilogy, but also stands on its own as an energetically-paced romp of a book that blends perilous action and something of a reverse-heist that circles a central mystery. Neither Kell nor Lila are particularly deep characters, at least at this stage, but they are both fun protagonists loosely of the “gentleman thief” archetype and the worlds are nothing if not vividly-painted.

However, for as much as I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, one relatively minor point of world building rubbed me the wrong way. One of the central conceits of the novel is there are four worlds of very different character, each of which has a London in the same spot and in roughly the same shape. Grey London is the one we are familiar with, while Red London has a celebratory fairie aura and White London has an austere severity with loose Scandinavian influences (as though the Danes had held onto England). As far as the story goes, I had no problems with the worldbuilding or flavor, even though it led to a particularly Anglo-centric flavor for each of the worlds.

What pushed this beyond simply a quirk of the story for me was the repeated assertion that each world had sources of magic that resonated across barriers and the two named in the book are the Thames River and Stonehenge: both in Britain. The infatuation with the Thames, in particular, which served no narrative purpose in the story, struck me as contributing to an impression not of a world with magic, but of a particularly magical Britain. On the whole this is arguably style rather than substance, but in a world that continues to deal with the destructive reverberations of centuries of colonialism and the ongoing reality of racist and imperial agendas, this small point oriented the world in a way that marred an otherwise excellent book.

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I’ve fallen a bit behind on blogging with the semester, but recently finished Alyson Hagy’s Scribe and Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I don’t know what fiction book I’ll start next, but I recently picked up a bunch of books I’m excited to read and this morning I started reading David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.

<em>Who Fears Death</em>

It turns out that exhaustion can beat my best intentions to get back to writing about the books I read. That said, I genuinely like wrestling with my thoughts about books and the process of reviewing them, so, despite the prospect of another busy year, one of my resolutions for the year is to get back to writing these posts.

Racial prejudice defines one corner of a post-apocalyptic Africa. According to the Great Book, the dark-skinned Okeke are naturally inferior and therefore ought to be subservient to the light-skinned Nuru. Both groups believe that any mixed offspring must be born of violence and rape and therefore the offspring, called Ewu, are naturally corrupted. On the first count, at least, they are usually not wrong.

The title character of Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu, is the product of such a violation. A powerful Nuru sorcerer following a prophecy about rewriting the book forever led Nuru soldiers into Okeke villages and using his powers to enhance their ability to rape and kill. Every Okeke man died and every Okeke woman was raped repeatedly before dying, save only the sorcerer’s victim, Najeeba, who he is convinced will bear him the son destined. Except Najeeba bears a daughter, fleeing far into the east to Jwahir where she seeks refuge, raising her daughter with a new husband there.

Of course, life isn’t easy for Onyesonwu in Jwahir. She is Ewu, but also her mother doesn’t hold with the town’s superstitions such as the Eleventh Rite (female circumcision), and Aro, the local sorcerer, refuses to consider teaching her magic despite her obvious skill and the mortal threat posed to her by her father. Still, this headstrong girl makes her own decisions, which wins her friends among the other girls her own age and with Mwita, Aro’s Ewu apprentice. The question is whether these friendships will be enough when Onyesonwu leaves Jwahir to challenge her biological father.

At its best, Who Fears Death is a careful exploration of these relationships and issues through a very tightly focalized viewpoint coming through Onyesonwu’s eyes. This meant particularly moving (if often harrowing) explorations of female circumcision, one character who is sexually abused by her father, and the interplay between magic, prejudice, and menstruation and pregnancy that doesn’t always come up in male-authored fantasy. Similarly, I was quite touched by the way in which the shared history in Jwahir and different experiences with the outside world informed the dynamics of this group that sets off ostensibly to save the world they all live in.

However, for all that Okorafor does well and all that I liked, I came away from Who Fears Death strangely dissatisfied––the way one does when expecting to be blown away and receiving satisfactory. Who Fears Death is a competent book that confronts serious issues head-on, but the same features that allow it to do this convincingly does not leave much room for exploration of the post-apocalyptic setting, which provides a few touches but did not strike me as a particularly necessary part of this story. I could say much the same about the “Africa” side of the equation, which could have as easily been an invented world.

(I have been critical of invented worlds that too bluntly followed modern analogs, but Who Fears Death doesn’t have a map and with the historical backdrop largely lost in the apocalypse, those critiques are dramatically reduced.)

But the tight focus on Onyesonwu and her story also caused the ending to fall somewhat flat for me. The actual execution, which involves her awareness of her eventual fate, is adequately executed, but I somehow wanted more because it came off as either too neat or too ambiguous. For me this once again came back to the choice to push this world to the background. Committing to Who Fears Death as the story of Onyesonwu allowed the emotional notes to land, but, at least for me, caused overall arc of the story to fall short.

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My reading has gotten a bit ahead of my writing, as is wont to happen, so I have also finished V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. I haven’t decided what I’m reading next, but since I have read nothing but books by women so far this month, I might as well finish it out the same way.

Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

My 2019: Resolutions

As is custom (starting last year), my year-end navel gazing series ends with my resolutions for the new year, a little delayed because my iPad keyboard died while I was on the road.

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The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness, particularly since my schedule last semester got in the way of these healthy routines.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something started off doing well in 2019 but had largely stopped by the end of the year and intend to do more regularly in 2020.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing.
  • Take ten minutes every afternoon for quiet meditation and reflection.
  • Complete the book manuscript that I’ve been working on based on my dissertation.
  • Complete the (2) article-length pieces that I didn’t quite finish in 2019 and draft (1) new one.
  • Find (1) new book to review.
  • Complete the next piece of my research project on bread in ancient Greece.
  • I have gotten away from reading academic books for reasons other than class or research, and I want to get back to reading for professional development. My target for this is at least (12), or one per month.
  • I didn’t quite hit my reading goal of 52 books for 2019, but will re-up at the same level
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2020, including a revised list of my favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

Recapping My 2019: best* posts; by-the-numbers; listicle; using words.

My 2019: Using Words

Judging solely on the resolutions I made for 2019, this was a year of best intentions come up short. At least two failures mirrored even minor successes, and, on the cusp of 2020, I mostly feel exhausted.

However, this assessment is colored by the fatigue I still feel from a particularly grueling semester. This year was broadly similar to the last, which was broadly similar to the one before that and the one before that. I had a few more professional successes in the past years, but I also had significantly fewer teaching responsibilities and more research support. Plus ça change.

Add in that I have now been in Columbia, MO for a decade and am currently without prospects for a permanent job in the area, and what I am feeling might be more appropriately described as stagnation.

All the same, I managed to deliver a paper on bread baking in ancient Greece last spring at the CAMWS meeting in Lincoln, NE, wrote a book review, and drafted two article-length pieces, one for an edited collection, and one I want to submit to a journal. Frustratingly, only the conference paper saw the light of day this year and I was once again unable to complete my first book manuscript (though I did make progress on it). I need to remember that this hardly counts for nothing when also teaching seven classes of my own (five new), picking up additional grading to make ends meet, and applying for academic jobs, all while also setting ambitious reading and exercise goals, and aiming to maintain a healthy relationship

I wrote last year about my recent struggles with anxiety and again earlier this year about struggling to write while depressed. These two emotional states dominated my year to the point that I tried to find a therapist in early September before the semester spun out of control. I received an initial evaluation and was prepared to spend quite a lot of money before my insurance would cover visits, but ended up not following through after being told the wait for start appointments.

Beyond simply the anxiety of the semester, I was (and am) particularly concerned about my career. The academic job market is the stuff of campfire horror stories for many reasons, but the long and the short of it is that most universities remain under regimes of austerity and those that aren’t are not generally not investing in full-time ancient historians. Add in a decade’s worth of accumulated PhDs and you have a recipe for, in some cases, hundreds of applicants and dozens of perfectly qualified candidates for every open position.

Nothing about these realities softens the notification that the job went to someone else.

My application materials are competitive and I have been receiving interviews, but I can’t help but wonder whether this will be the last year I get to do this job that I genuinely love, which, in turn, creates a negative feedback loop on my academic projects. For the work that I have been doing recently, this lack of stability is at least as much of an impediment as is the lack of research support. I have a long and growing list of things I want to do, but I have found myself in a position where I am disinclined to aggressively pursue the most ambitious ones without some promise of stability on the other side because the emotional toll and the cost to my personal relationships is too great. Perhaps I should take more risks, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But, when combined with the significant amount time spent securing employment, often semester by semester, these issues create a contingent faculty Catch-22.

Professional anxiety was omnipresent last year, but it is worth remembering that there is more to life than this. I was able to reconnect with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, I spent time learning how bake things like croissants, and I remain in a long-term committed relationship with an amazing woman who helps keep me grounded.

I don’t know what 2020 has in store for me, but the new year is upon us so I guess I am about to find out.

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My year-in-review series is running behind, but this essay trying to make sense of my year is the penultimate entry. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle.

Past essays in this series: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.