Is it cheating to bring a character back from the dead?
I don’t remember reading “The White Rider” for the first time. I’m not sure there was ever a time when I was working under the assumption that Gandalf was fully, irrevocably gone. And at this point it’s hard to even imagine a story in which he doesn’t come back, in which the fellowship struggles forward as they were, imperfect and alone.
And it doesn’t feel like cheating to me: not for any plot or mythos specific reason, but simply because it’s good for the story. Gandalf is a wonderful, vibrant character from his first appearance. He’s funny, charming, wise, and sometimes hasty. He’s fallible and intensely aware of it. He always feels like such a human character, and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that he’s just a wise, talented old man in a pointy hat. But he’s not. Gandalf is old—nearly incomprehensibly old by human standards. He lived with the Valar, he walked Middle-earth for ages. There are depths to Gandalf—it’s no wonder he and Treebeard got on so splendidly. And one of the great treats of “The White Rider” is catching of glimpse of these depths, as buried facets of Gandalf simmer to the surface.
The White Rider
Gandalf the White makes his first appearance as a threat. Legolas spies him skulking through the woods, a hooded figure in white. He’s meant to be ominous:
At that moment the old man quickened his pace and came with surprising speed to the foot of the rock-wall. Then suddenly he looked up, while they stood motionless looking down. There was no sound.
It’s a creepy scene. The figure’s speed changes jarringly, the silence draws out the tension. When our trio react with fear, they are stricken by an inability to move or speak. The man will not identify himself, and insists the others talk about themselves. At one point he laughs “long and softly” which is a horrifying way to describe a laugh? And even after everyone recognizes this figure, he only remembers his name when Aragorn speaks it to him.
A lot of this is designed to ratchet up tension for first time readers. Most of the trio – especially Gimli – is convinced that this is an impending Saruman attack, so the ominous underlay makes perfect sense. But it also has the interesting side effect of forefronting danger as a key aspect of who Gandalf is. Gandalf himself makes this explicit later:
“I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous, more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli, son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.”
Gandalf has always been dangerous. But underlining his return with a sense of danger and strangeness makes the reader immediately aware that something has changed. Gandalf has returned, but he’s not quite who he had been.
The Wizard and the Balrog
And, to be fair, who would expect him to be? Gandalf has had a *rough* couple of weeks. After taking a tandem dive off Khazad-dûm with a fire demon, he plunged into an icy pool and then had a forty-eight-hour battle royale on a frozen mountaintop. When he cast the balrog down, he broke the mountain. This is a nice taste of Gandalf’s recent experiences:
“Far below the deepest delvings of the dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope.”
Yikes, Gandalf! That’s rough, buddy! The degree to which this was a traumatizing experience can be seen in his description of the battle, as he slips in an out of first person:
“But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapor and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.”
It’s interesting how Gandalf tells his story, and how he abstracts himself until the moment of victory. Before that, everything is told from the perspective of a hypothetical third party or in the passive tense. It creates the sense that Gandalf only partially relates to that Gandalf on the mountaintop, and creates a distance between past and present identity. And that raises an important question: who is Gandalf the White?
Gandalf the White
“Then darkness came to me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.”
We get two different glimpses of Gandalf in the course of “The White Rider.” The first comes from Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. When Aragorn first hears the hooded figure laugh—before he knows his identity—he describes the sound as giving him a “strange, cold thrill” comparable to “the sudden bite of keen air, or the slap of a cold rain that wakes an uneasy sleeper.” After that, nearly every description of Gandalf features sunlight.
The first description given to him after being revealed states that his hair “was white as snow in the sunshine, gleaming white was his robe, his eyes under deep brows were bright, like rays of the sun; power was in his hand.” His laugh, no longer long and soft, is “kindly as a gleam of sunshine.” The Trio looks over to see another gleam of sun, this time filtering through the clouds and filling Gandalf’s hands with light “as a cup is with water.” At one point he looks straight into the sun; at another he recalls Gwaihir’s shock that Gandalf’s body was so light that “the Sun shines through you.”
In this line of thinking we get the easiest interpretation of Gandalf’s ordeals: it was a process of purification. Gandalf as always been associated with fire. He bears Narya, the ring of fire. Tolkien described him as inherently opposing “the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles… his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.”
But instead of a buried, turbulent flame, Gandalf’s ordeals have distilled him into purer sunlight, clearer and more assured. All of this also takes on more poignant tone, as Gandalf—when first sent as an emissary to Middle-earth by Manwë—attempted to decline, saying he was too fearful to go. It happens nearly entirely off-page, but it’s a lovely character arc. His battle with the balrog has concentrated him, illuminating the aspects that always lay underneath.
The Turn of the Tide
That’s not the whole story, though. Gandalf is more powerful than he was, and more self-assured. But there is a sense that he still feels somewhat powerless:
There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumor of all the lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.
I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.
Gandalf’s knowledge feels greater than it ever was; he can sense Saruman’s thoughts and sense Sauron’s purpose. He can hear the “rumor of the lands” and glimpse far-off things. But knowledge never brings him a sense of omnipotence or control. The “rumor” he hears is chaotic and contradictory, filled with slow, large-scale trends but lacking focus. His knowledge reaches to the “far-off” but not the close up. There is a permeating sense that Gandalf knows so much, but not enough.
It’s a double thematic bonus for Tolkien. It gives Gandalf limitations, so his assertion that “much will be destroyed and all may be lost” and that “I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still” does ring true. And more importantly, it implicitly highlights the importance of free will and individual action in the narrative. Gandalf can know so much, but still not that Sam would accompany Frodo, that Merry and Pippin would be cast into Treebeard’s path, or any of the other “small stones that start an avalanche in the mountains.” All power in Tolkien’s universe must be limited. There are too many factors at play.
[Side note: This also places a nice capstone on Aragorn’s arc. On several occasions he has wished for more information in order to make a decision; it’s suggested here that knowledge does not necessarily come accompanied by the comfort of certitude]
Empathy and the Enemy
Despite all of these character beats from Gandalf, I can imagine complaints from those, ermm, less sympathetic to Tolkien’s style. Gandalf’s massive Balrog battle happens off-page, and is quickly summarized in about two paragraphs. And before we even get to it, we get pages of speechifying. It’s understandable that some people may grumble about trading a mountain battle for a mountain of exposition.
I think it’s good exposition though, and rather needed. Sauron and Saruman have been such distant, obscure threats for most of the story. And that’s been fine: so much of the drama of The Fellowship of the Ring was predicated on that distance and obscurity, and the real conflict happened largely within our characters. But at the same time, it’s nice to get some insight from the newly-insightful Gandalf.
[Sauron] assumes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place… Indeed, he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered his darkest dream.
It is so satisfying to me that Sauron’s—and Saruman’s—downfall boil down to a lack of empathy. The only reason that anything in Lord of the Rings works is because the bad guys simply lack the imagination to consider that the world is different from what they imagined it to be. Sauron’s world is one of conflict, strife, power. That’s understandable, given his history. It’s also, in part, incorrect. Saruman is in the same position:
There is much that he does not know…. His thought is ever on the Ring. Was it present in the battle? Was it found? What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark, should come by it and learn of its power? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to double and treble the assault upon Rohan. And all that time there is another danger, close at hand, which he does not see, busy with his fiery thoughts. He has forgotten Treebeard.
It’s a lovely little twist: Gandalf and Aragorn stress throughout the first half of The Two Towers concerning the things that they could not possibly know. They are acutely aware of them. Sauron and Saruman fear what they don’t know as well, but they also assume that they know what to fear. Evil fails in Middle-earth due to a failure of imagination and a lack of empathy. This revelation pairs so well with the newly-minted Gandalf the White’s thoughts and troubles (and Aragorn’s up to this point) that this chapter provides a good argument that Tolkien had a very strong sense of thematic cohesion in his work, and that these themes work on a multitude of levels.
- FIRST THINGS FIRST: I honestly can’t believe Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, aren’t freaking out over losing Éomer’s horses. It’s been a couple of hours and he basically said that his life relied on them returning them safely. They are so wrapped up in their new mystery-solving club that they don’t even pay poor Éomer a second thought.
- Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.” A million continuity purists and Tom Bombadil fans cry out in anguish.
- As a kid, it bothered me a bit when Aslan rose from the dead in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m sympathetic to people being bothered in a similar capacity by Gandalf’s return. But at the same time, it feels very different to me. Aslan’s resurrection is unavoidably allegorical; Gandalf’s is not. Tolkien’s worldbuilding is wonky and multifaceted enough that very few things —even those that are obviously influenced by Christianity—feel rigidly Christian.
- This is a good chapter for Gimli, who continues to be a great character. He’s moody and emotional but always endearing. I very much enjoyed his unbridled faith in Aragorn’s investigative abilities, his shame over failing to recognize Gandalf (and trying to hit in the head with an axe) and his teasing of Legolas. My favorite, though, has to be his dramatic overreaction to thinking Galadriel failed to send him a message. Legolas point out that the messages were… ominous. “Would you have her speak openly to you of your death?” he asks. “Yes,” says Gimli, “if she had nought else to say.” I believe this is what kids these days call being EXTRA.
- Legolas does well for himself too: he calls Aragorn and Gimli “children” and teases Merry and Pippin for celebrating their escape by immediately sitting down for a snack.
- “What? In riddles?” said Gandalf. “No. For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.”
“I am no longer young even in the reckoning of men of the Ancient Houses,” said Aragorn.
I enjoy how petulant Aragorn sounds here. He sounds like a teenager insisting he’s an adult.
- Prose Prize: “The grey figure of the Man, Aragorn son of Arathorn, was tall, and stern as stone, his hand upon the hilt of his sword; he looked as if some kind out of the mists of the sea had stepped upon the shores of lesser men. Before him stooped the old figure, white, shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings.”
- Contemporary to this chapter: It is also March in Middle-earth. Gandalf makes his reappearance on March 1st, the second day of the Entmoot. Meanwhile, over the east, Frodo and Sam are entering the Dead Marshes.
- It’s been about six weeks since Gandalf’s disappearance – he fell at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm on January 15th. His battle with the Balrog on Zirak-Zigil was on January 23-25, which means poor Gandalf spent a solid week in the pits of the earth. After the Balrog’s death he lied on the mountaintop for about three weeks, awakening in mid-February while Frodo was looking into the Mirror of Galadriel. He only missed the Company in Lórien by a day.
- Éowyn countdown: NEXT CHAPTER. Mark your calendars Tolkienites, our favorite shield maiden makes her debut on March 29th.
If You Only Read One Star Wars Novel, Make it Lost Stars
If you aren’t reading the New Extended Canon (EC) Star Wars novels, you’re really missing out. Ever since my friend Rachel got me hooked on the EC, I’ve made it a goal to get everyone I know hooked as well. The characters are excellent, the stories diverse and nuanced, and the themes and messages deep, thoughtful, and relevant. They aren’t fluff or filler; they’re necessary elements of the Star Wars franchise that expand upon and fill out what we only get to see briefly in the films (ask me about that later, I have a piece planned). Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars is the example par excellence of what EC Star Wars is all about.
Lost Stars was published in 2015, so I’m admittedly behind the game in getting this review out. However, because of how exemplary this novel is for the EC and how great a novel it is on its own merits, it’s worth talking about now. Especially given how, ah, divisive The Last Jedi has been for the fandom. Spanning the entirety of the Original Trilogy (OT) and then some, Lost Stars offers a unique perspective on the events of the OT: that of an Imperial officer and an Imperial defector to the Rebellion. Even if you hate the Sequel Trilogy with a passion, you really don’t want to miss Lost Stars.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
The reign of the Galactic Empire has reached the Outer Rim planet of Jelucan, where aristocratic Thane Kyrell and rural villager Ciena Ree bond over their love of flying. Enrolling at the Imperial Academy together to become fighter pilots for the glorious Empire is nothing less than a dream come true for the both of them. But Thane sours on the dream when he sees firsthand the horrific tactics the Empire uses to maintain its ironclad rule.
Bitter and disillusioned, Thane joins the fledgling Rebellion—putting Ciena in an unbearable position to choose between her loyalty to the Empire and her love for the man she’s known since childhood.
Now on opposite sides of the war, will these friends turned foes find a way to be together, or will duty tear them—and the galaxy—apart?
The Good Stuff
Full confession: I love Claudia Gray. Her novels exhibit a level of artistry in writing characters and themes that take me aback every time. Her prose manages to be both highly evocative and approachable to a broad range of reading levels. She’s a master of subtle yet plausible fanservice. Characters we love from the OT—like Luke, Han, Leia, and even side characters like Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar—enter our protagonists’ sphere in ways that make sense and never linger beyond what’s reasonable.
Her worldbuilding is likewise excellent. She writes the Star Wars universe as well as any other of the EC writers I’ve read, but what I love most is her attention to cultural details. Creating convincing alien species and cultures takes a lot of skill. Remembering to also provide cultural differentiation for human settlements takes an equal amount of skill, and not every writer remembers to do that. Gray makes cultural differences more than about dress, appearance, physiology, or large-scale religious differences. Small details like mourning rituals, formal declarations of loyalty, and a special practice for carrying on the memory of a dead twin add to the sense of realism of her characters and their cultural heritage.
As was true in Leia: Princess of Alderaan, her pacing is slower than most YA novels, but that doesn’t mean there’s no action. She writes action sequences well; the finale is damn near cinematic. At the same time, the vast majority of her tension occurs within the characters. Gray knows how to use third person intimate to its best effect. The juxtaposition of different viewpoints on the same event is especially effective for character development and maximum tragic irony.
Whether it’s divided loyalties, internal versus external honor, duty versus love, ideals versus reality, or cynicism versus faith, Gray knows how to write internal conflict superbly well. She’s especially good at writing characters whose sense of duty is at odds with their ideals or inhibits their emotional vulnerability. (Basically, she knows dutiful princesses inside and out.) She crafts interactions where misunderstanding makes tragic sense without feeling forced or needlessly complicated.
Her skill in this regard is on full display with Ciena and Thane in Lost Stars. They’re not just literally star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of a war (though they are that). Ciena and Thane are the kind of people who start out believing that they know everything about what the other thinks and feels. They can predict each other’s moves with uncanny precision one moment but still misunderstand the motives and goals of the other the next. Because no matter how much we know someone, they can still surprise us. It’s a delicate balance, and Gray handles it deftly.
Gray also excels at writing interesting secondary characters with only a paragraph or two. Lohgarra—a mom friend Wookiee Thane co-pilots for—is one of my favorite secondary characters and her page time might be somewhere around 10 pages. Ciena’s former roommate at the Imperial Academy Jude is a delight, and Nash Windrider, one of Thane’s former roommates, has one of the most fascinating character arcs in the whole book.
On the aesthetic side, the cynic/idealist is one of my favorite romantic pairings. Plus, Lost Stars is basically an entire novel of angst and mutual pining, which I am a huge fan of when done well (and this is done really well).
“They mirrored each other, almost touching but forever apart.” (p. 545)
That’s it. That’s the book.
It’s an honest love story, one with powerful connection and loyalty on the one hand but with the potential for devastating misunderstanding on the other. True, most people don’t know what it feels like to possibly be the person to shoot down your best friend/lover’s plan in battle, but we all know what it means to fear hurting someone we love because of a difference of opinion. The stakes are higher for Thane and Ciena, but that just makes the story that much more gripping.
Lost Stars shows us that there are as many reasons to be a part of the Empire as there are to be a part of the Rebellion. It isn’t all black and white. Not everyone who joined up with Leia and co. did so because they believed in the ideals of the New Republic. Not every Imperial joined up to coldly exploit the galaxy. Cynics can be Rebels; idealists can be Imperials. Not every Alderaanian approved of the Organas.
When watching the OT and PT, it can be easy to think that the tyranny and corruption at the heart of the Empire was always obvious to everyone. But it wasn’t, and Lost Stars tackles that thorny issue head on. We see that for many, the Empire felt like a necessary corrective to the chaos of the Clone Wars. It brought a sense of stability, of ‘law and order’ that at first appeared healthy and safe. Before the depth of Palpatine’s depravity became widely known, the Empire offered a measure of freedom, advancement, and a sense of purpose for those from back water planets, ‘low’ birth, or chaotic homes.
Staying within the Empire isn’t so clear cut either. Through Ciena’s eyes, we see a wide range of explanations for staying from true belief, to a cultural commitment to loyalty, a desire to fix what’s broken, and a sense of responsibility for those under her command. Some of these reasons are more sympathetic than others, but the larger truth behind them is that not everyone within the Empire is a hateful monster.
It can take a long time for the rot at the core of an apple to infect the outer flesh and in the meantime, a lot of well-meaning, good people can be tempted to bite into it, only to get sick. We might initially be tempted to think we’re a Thane, but most of us are more like Ciena than we’d care to admit. Ciena’s self-delusion and slowly unfolding sense of betrayal is mesmerizing in its honesty. The moment she meets Palpatine is heavy, terrifying, and raw because we sympathize with her. We, too, could have and have been that person who didn’t believe they were serving something truly horrible until it looks them in the face (especially if we’re someone who has any degree of privilege in our current society).
Lost Stars also highlights the many paths to doubt and disillusionment and that one’s reaction to those feelings isn’t always the same. Ciena didn’t see the atrocities Thane did first hand, but neither did Thane have to experience the personal betrayals Ciena did. And neither of them were native Alderaanians like Nash Windrider, an Imperial officer who witnessed the destruction of his planet from the ‘other side.’ With these three characters and others, we see that coping takes many forms, some healthier than others. Sometimes people double down on their original beliefs. Others seek a way out through defection and still others through self-harm and suicide. We also see just how much one’s culture and family history can shape one’s perspective on the same situation.
Gray tackles some of the most pressing questions that face us today when it comes to systemic oppression and injustice. Do all good people go bad in a corrupt system? What is the best pathway to change? When do we abandon a corrupt system and when do we try to change it from within? Is disloyalty to a corrupt system different from the disloyalty of that system to the people it’s meant to take care of? How? To what degree is responsibility for systemic injustice shared at every level and what ought to be reserved for those in positions of more power? Should we take motivations into account when condemning those who participated in a corrupt system?
The answers to these questions are complicated, and Gray never lets us simplify them.
At the same time, she never justifies her characters’ behavior or beliefs for the sake of “moral ambiguity.” It’s one of her other great skills: her ability to present her characters without judgment yet while still maintaining a moral center to the story. She’s willing to write them honestly and in a nuanced way without leather-pantsing. There’s no need to caricature the Empire, Imperials can be human and wrong at the same time. In fact, they’re more pitiable and tragic for their humanity. You can feel sorry for them and even empathize with them while still condemning the choices and desire for consequences. She never shies away from calling it like it is…
“I was so dedicated to honor that I became a war criminal.” (p.540)
…but that doesn’t make her characters any less real or honest. Gray generates sympathy and pathos without ever justifying the horrors committed in the Empire’s name. It’s truly remarkable and one of the most nuanced pieces of storytelling I’ve read in years.
Gray never shies away from depicting the human cost of war either. For all who have complained that the OT didn’t deal enough with the casualties of war and the losses inflicted and suffered on both sides, this is your book. We can get so focused on Alderaan (justifiably so) that we forget that the Death Star would have been a similarly traumatic event for the Imperial officers. They, too, lost friends, loved ones, and colleagues. The scale is different, of course, but the grief and trauma isn’t. We can acknowledge the trauma of both situations without equating their actions.
That’s the beating heart of Lost Stars, the story beneath the doomed romance of Thane and Ciena. We can acknowledge the pain, suffering, trauma, and even the differing motivations of those who ideologically disagree with us without justifying or excusing the horrific acts committed by them and the system they participate in. We can humanize without moral equivalence. I can see and validate your grief without that meaning I agree with you or what you’ve done. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, admittedly. And one that’s getting harder to do in our culture of extremes. But it’s a necessary nuance if we’re ever going to fix our fractured society. We have to humanize the other side because otherwise, we’re at risk of losing what we stand for.
Finally, I have to say that I appreciate that Gray includes neuroatypical and disabled characters. These types of diversity tend to get overlooked in the very necessary desire for queer and racial representation. She has that, too, yet she doesn’t forget the marginalizations others might. She brings it all to the characters she writes and so seamlessly that I want to point to her when I hear people complain about diversity being ‘unnatural.’
At 550 pages, this book is a commitment, I grant you. However, Gray’s style is so readable and the story so gripping that the time flies. I read it in two days while also doing my normal level of other work. Plus, it’s totally worth it.
Final Score: 10/10
Lost Stars is must read for SW fans of all ages, even ones who hate the Sequels, even ones who are more into the OT and Legends. It’s the best that EC has to offer, in my opinion, and what I’d recommend to people who want to read EC novels if they’re not looking for specific character driven novels like Leia, Ahsoka, Rose, or Luke.
Images courtesy of Disney Lucasfilm Press
Book Review: Villains Don’t Date Heroes! by Mia Archer
When a friend I’ve known for years suggested I read this book, I knew I was in for a treat of absolute weirdness. Her taste is a little odd, and when she recommended this based on the level of campiness, I knew I had to give it a shot.
Villains Don’t Date Heroes! (Yes, the exclamation is included in the title) focuses on Night Terror, the best supervillain in the city who is bored of her job. She has terrorized the town to the best of her ability, and we find her during a bank robbery that she is only conducting out of tedium. As she goes about robbing the bank, we are introduced to Fialux, the new superhero in town. Not only is she able to take down Night Terror, but she has her head over heels in love from first glance.
Night Terror knows she can’t get back to her general treachery with Fialux around, so she begins to plot ways to take her down. But when Night Terror has to come to terms with her past and how her expulsion from college is impacting her present, does she find something larger brewing? And how, in all of this, does a crush on Fialux fit in?
Now, I judge books differently by who they are written by and how they come to end up in my Kindle Library. Was this traditionally published, self-published, or published by small press? How does the piece I am reviewing fit into the author’s larger body of work? I do this because not every book gets the same amount of revision and eyes on it, so I do hold traditionally published books to a higher standard, and I give a little slack to independent publishers. When I started to dig a little deeper into what this author writes, I found almost the exact same story line. Over and over again, a geek falls for a cool girl. One of them is in the closet. A kiss changes everything. Will they risk it all for true love (or as true of love as you can be in at 17)?
Villains don’t date Heroes! is different. It’s Archer’s first foray into superheroine drama, and for that, I do give her credit for venturing beyond her typical story. But upon reading the synopsis more closely on Amazon, I found that this book had been previously written under a different pen name, and that pen name brought up a steamier variety of book. A peruse through some of the Amazon reviews also stated that maybe this was a third rewrite under a third pen name. Either way, this has been published in three different versions under three different pen names.
This book is decidedly campy, but not in an effective way. Even in the inanest of romance novels there is a thinly veiled plot over the pining and general frivolity. But in this, we are told Night Terror is bored. We are told Night Terror is attracted to Fialux. We are told how brilliant and capable Night Terror is, only to watch her fail over and over. We are told a lot of this story (what story there is amongst the gloating and rewriting).
But the writing isn’t the only problem. We only get any actual conversations between Fialux and Night Terror halfway through the book. Before that, it is Night Terror mooning over how attractive Fialux is, being thrown in jail, tinkering around, and brooding over how she was kicked out of college. There isn’t much here to be upset with, because there isn’t much story.
And there are major problems with the basic premise. If Night Terror is the greatest supervillain in the city, why is she bored? If she wants to take over the world, why is she just terrorizing this one city? Shouldn’t she be moving on to the larger state or country? Why does she spend so much of the novel harboring anger at her old college professor? As the story goes on, one realizes that very little of it makes any sense.
Look, I’m not here to tell you what to do, but this is the third time this mess has been published, and honestly, if you want an anti-hero story, or a villain story, or just a superhero story, go read anything in the Superheroine series by YLVA Publishing. I’ve reviewed a couple of the titles, and both are works of classic literature in comparison to this mess. Save yourself the time, energy and frustration, and go read something else.
Images Courtesy of Amazon Digital Services LLC
Dealing with Trauma and Characters Improves Wild Magic
First published in 1992, Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic starts a new series. It takes place several years after the end of Lioness Rampant and carries the readers further into the world of Tortall. We meet new characters, become reacquainted with old ones, and see them face new struggles. It’s also the series that I started reading Pierce’s work with, so I am indescribably fond. Pierce has grown immeasurably in the four years since the conclusion of her first quartet. Partly because of the choice of characters, and partly time wearing it’s inevitable journey forward. Whatever the cause Wild Magic marks a new beginning, for both the readers and the characters within.
Wild Magic begins with Daine, our new protagonist. She’s a thirteen year old bastard orphan, making her way to Tortall with Onua – who buys horses for the Queens Riders. In the years since Lioness Rampant, Thayet created a new branch of the army which allows women to fight. On the way to Tortall, Daine and Onua encounter stormwings (half human half metal bird monsters), spidrens (half human half spider monsters), and a strange hawk who is also a sorcerer called ‘Numair’. Once they arrive at Corus, Numair tells Daine that she has wild magic, which allows her to talk to animals and to heal them. We see Tortall under siege by monsters called immortals who’ve returned to the mortal realms after being locked in the divine realm centuries ago. Diane studies with Numair and helps Onua train the Riders.
As they head to the summer training camp, Pirate’s Swoop, Alanna and George’s Barony they encounter other problems. They meet Griffins, sea lions, and Daine learns to heal. She also tells Onua and Numair how bandits killed her mother and grandfather. She also tells about how she lost her humanity hunting said bandits with the local wolf pack. Cloud, her pony and constant companion, reminded her she was human, but Daine ran from her old town and couldn’t go back.
Once they arrive at Pirate’s Swoop, Carthaki raiders attack them. They want to kidnap Thayet and her two oldest children as leverage against Jonathan so that Carthak can conquer Tortall. The Riders, George’s people, a dragon, a kraken, and the animals working with Daine rebuff the invadors. The dragon dies and the book ends with Daine finding her baby and preparing to raise her.
One of the things that Pierce does wonderfully in this book and novel is that she gives us characters with more diverse backgrounds. The central characters from her previous series generally all came from places of privilege. Even George was the King of the Thieves, and high in that underground hierarchy. Wild Magic is centered around characters that come from different places, and Pierce also manages to balance her characters much better than she has done previously.
Evin and Miri and Gender Equality
One of the things that Pierce does almost immediately better is in who her character’s friends are. Until Woman who Rides Like a Man, Alanna didn’t have female friends. Admittedly, she was disguised as a boy for most of that time, but it doesn’t really reflect female friendships very well. From the beginning Daine is different in that respect. Once she arrives at Corus, she befriends both Evin Larse and Miri, both Rider trainees, and both from different walks of life. Miri is the daughter of fishers, and is only learning to not fear horses. Given the fact that the Riders are a cavalry based organization, Daine helps immensely with this. Evin Larse is the son of Players, which are wandering actors and entertainers.
Miri even implicitly references what Pierce has done by including her and Evin in the story. When she approaches Daine, where she had been sitting all alone, she asks if Daine was a Trainee. Daine says no, but that she’ll be helping with the ponies. Miri says, “Good—we need more girls. There are two many boys.” (105). While it is both a commentary on how stories need more female protagonists in general, it also speaks to Pierce’s novel.
Alanna’s female friendships were late in the series, and more peripheral than the close bonds she had with romantic partners. With Daine, Pierce is deliberately trying to surround her with characters that make up for that. Daine has male friends yes, Numair, Sarge, and Evin. But she also has Onua, Alanna, Thayet, and Miri, and dozens of others. It’s not just one woman making friends with men anymore, it a story about a young woman making friends with many different people—animal or human, male or female. It shows how Pierce has grown in just four years.
Overtures in Race
Another thing that Pierce does which shows her slow improvement is how she deals with race. She’s attempting to have a more balanced world, not just one that is your typical white fantasy world. It’s still not perfect, given that there are only seven people of color in the entire novel, and five of them are unnamed. One of the named people is Hakim, a Bazhir from Woman Who Rides Like a Man. He appears on the journey to Corus, a sergeant in the Kings Own. He helps Alanna and Daine fight of the spidrens.
The other character of color in the novel is Sarge. He is one of the three who teach the Queens Riders. He also escaped slavery before coming to Tortall. It’s in part a very stereotypical story, but Sarge is one of the more important new characters. He treats Daine with respect, and helps her learn to make her authority with the trainees. A particularly idiotic trainee had been flirting with Daine instead of listening to her. Sarge intervened on her behalf. He shamed the trainee for both flirting with a Daine and for being unkind to the pony he was supposed to be grooming.
When Daine goes to talk with him afterwards, feeling awkward. Sarge reassures her, and they share what I would describe as a genuinely sweet moment. It’s a moment of solidarity between the two of them. In some ways it mirrors how people from different oppressed groups band together.
Pierce hasn’t fixed all her mistakes, and the book isn’t saying landmark things about race. It doesn’t include many people of color, and most of the ones that do appear are solely window dressing in the background. However, it’s an improvement on her previous handling of race, and is progress.
Daine as Protagonist
Intersectionality is one of the touchstones of third-wave feminism, though it wasn’t unheard of in second-wave feminism. Diane is very much a intersectional character. She’s a female, orphan, refugee, and a bastard in a world where that still matters. Snowsdale, the village that she was born and raised in is implied to be very conservative. Considering Daine’s reaction—almost tears—when she was asked if she wanted to wear pants instead of skirts, it’s not very subtle. She says that the priests and the headman wouldn’t approve, despite not three minutes ago wanting to wear anything other than skirts because of the discomfort.
She initially refuses a book Numair gave her on animal anatomy because she didn’t feel that she deserved it. When she meets Thayet, who she’d thought was a normal person beforehand, she explodes. “Odd’s bobs, this is a strange place! Knights who say call ’em by their first name and wizards who light tinder and queens that run around dressed like real people—” (103-4). When she meets Jonathan, he asks about her father, because she can sense when immortals attack because of her wild magic.But Daine doesn’t know who her father is, so she can’t help.
When entering Tortall, Daine thinks that she’ll get a fresh start, where her entire identity won’t be wound up in her bastardy. Every aspect of her character reflects the different intersections of oppression that Daine experienced. Pierce she shows how discrimination affects Daine as she immerses herself in this new country. During the skirt incident she thinks, “it hit her, really hit her, that she was free of Snowsdale, what could they do to her now?” (110). It doesn’t change everything, but she’s in a place where not everyone will judge her only on her background.
Recovery from Trauma
One of the more important lessons of Wild Magic is about how people handle trauma, and about how people help others.
Kuri Tailor is the woman who outfits Daine with pants and shirts. As mentioned above, Daine has some lingering issues about Snowsdale, and Kuri comforts her. “Forget them. …You’re ours, now. …But here life’s what you make it. Who you used to be doesn’t matter. Look at Sarge—he was a slave, once. Onua was beaten by her husband and left to die. Her Majesty and Buri had to flee Saraine. Do you catch my drift?” (112).
This is one of the more thematically important passages of the novel. The novel as a whole is the process of dealing with trauma and recovering from it. One of the most important things that you can hear when you’re trying to recover is that others have done it. Doubly so when those people are there to help you on your path as well. Kuri telling Daine about Sarge’s and Onua’s and Thayet and Buri’s pasts shows her that these successful people struggled. They overcame things that are incredibly difficult to overcome. They survived, and they thrived. That promise, that you can remake yourself, and become someone who isn’t defined by your trauma is essential to hear on the road to recovery.
This is the thesis of the novel yes, but Pierce again shows how it isn’t easy with how Daine handles her twin traumas.
Daine and Grief
Daine is a thirteen year old girl who lost her entire family except a pony less than a year ago. That sort of thing leaves scars, and it’s scars that Pierce allows Daine to show. She’s barely able to mention her family in the first few chapters. When she mentions them afterwards, it’s liable to wind up causing her to snap at other people.
The first time it happens is when she’s meeting Numair, not the hawk he was shape-shifted into for the first time. Numair is incredulous that she doesn’t have the Gift, and Daine explodes. Onua tells Numair that her mother kept testing Daine for the Gift, and that she died recently. Though it’s not a direct mention of her mother, it’s close enough to spark emotions in someone grieving. Also the Gift was a source of tension between her and her mother beforehand, so that also is a factor.
The second major time this happens is when Numair lights a fire with his Gift. Daine’s shock is apparent, and Numair teases her for a moment about needing rituals to cause fire to burn back home. Considering the bandits burnt her home to the ground, Daine stalks off.
Onua told her early on that you need to speak about things, to bleed the poison off the bad memories. Daine eventually does this with her family, talking about them to Onua and Numair, though keeping her other trauma hidden from them until later. Daine feels guilty for having fun, for teasing Numair back and for befriending Onua. Eventually, she realizes that guilt is not what her family would want, and it eases those outbursts of grief.
As before though, it doesn’t go away forever, the pain of losing her family lingers around Daine for the rest of the series.
Daine and Mental Illness
The Good Aspects
While mental illness isn’t precisely the right term for Daine’s experiences hunting the bandits, it’s the closest allegory. She hunted down the bandits who killed her family with the local wolf pack. In return, her village hunted her, for weeks, tried to kill her because of what she’d done. Daine describes it as loosing her humanity. Numair, when told about this, theorizes that her magical bond with animals overwhelms her when near a group of animals. He puts a shield between her magic and her core self, which prevents such a relapse.
However, this only happens halfway through the book. During the first half, Daine discovers going too deep in the lessons Numar gives her will bring out the ‘madness’ again. Because of this, she starts faking her way through the lessons and being very touchy, more so than with her grief earlier. It’s a very good representation of one way that people try to deal with trauma. Daine tries to bottle it all up, tries to pretend that not thinking about it will just make it disappear. It’s a decent representation of that facet of trauma, and it fits with Daine’s character.
The Bad Aspects
But, there is one aspect of this representation that is less appealing. Daine is visited at various times in her dreams by a badger. He gives her advice and tells her he knows her father. He is the one that finally compels her to tell her story to Onua and Numair. At one point he tells her that, “The madness was to teach you something. You should mind the lesson.” (30). These two lines are the opposite of helpful, and the opposite of feminist. Trauma and mental illness are not something that should be handled in this way.
In a fantasy world, there is the possibility that gods try to teach mankind lessons through trials. This was not the case with Daine here. I find it likely that this line of the badger’s is part of why she didn’t tell anyone until so late. She felt she deserved it and if it was a lesson, she should be able to figure out how to solve it on her own. That was counterproductive to the point, and prevents her from healing.
Overall, Wild Magic is a story that has ultimately a feminist takeaway. It’s a story about how a community of people comes together to heal. It’s a story about how there is more than one kind of person. There may be some rough patches and throw away lines, and there are places where Pierce could have pushed more. But whenever I read the epilogue I’m reminded of why this story matters.
Daine starts the story as an orphan, and she ends the story taking in another orphan. After a debate between Thayet, Alanna, George, Numair, and Onua as to where Daine should go and ultimately live, Pierce puts it best. “Daine looked at these unusual people who had become friends, and laughed. ‘It’s fair funny,’ she explained. ‘I’ve gone from having no home to having too many!’ The Lioness smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Welcome to Tortall,’ she said.” (362).
That welcome extends not only to Daine, but to the reader, and it’s a fitting end to the first chapter of Daine’s story.
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