Everyone’s favourite blue skinned, red-eyed, evil Sherlock Holmes returns for his second canon Star Wars novel in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn: Alliances. I am happy to report that it is worth the read and an improvement on it’s predecessor, even if it falls into some of the same traps.
Why do we care about this book?
For those who don’t know, Grand Admiral Thrawn is essentially the most iconic character of the Star Wars old canon expanded universe (now designated “Legends”). Zahn’s 1990s Thrawn Trilogy is credited with rekindling interest in the franchise post-Return of the Jedi, pre-The Phantom Menace time period.
The original Thrawn Trilogy is now part of the Legends universe and hence, no longer part of the official Disney canon. Thrawn’s appeal as a character however, has remained strong with the fans. This appeal that saw him parachuted into Star Wars: Rebels (Rebels) as the reigning big bad for the final two seasons. It also spawned a novel, Thrawn released in 2017, exploring the characters backstory and rise to the rank and crisp white uniform of Grand Admiral within an Empire that didn’t really like offering opportunities to non-humans. Thrawn: Alliances is simultaneously a sequel to that novel and to season three of Rebels.
The story reaches across two timelines, each focusing on events that take place on and around the planets of Batuu and Mokivj. Timeline one takes us back to the last year of the Clone Wars. It features the primary characters of the titular Thrawn, Jedi General Anakin Skywalker (somehow less wooden on paper than on screen) and, delightfully, Senator Padme Amidala (who is getting her own book soon!!). The plot focuses mainly on Padme’s investigation of the disappearance of her handmaid/intelligence operative Duja and Anakin’s investigation of Padme’s subsequent disappearance.
Clone Wars Timeline
Joining Anakin for his investigation is pre-Empire Thrawn, a commander in the Chiss Ascendancy. It’s a delight watching these two play detective and seeing their two opposing views of the world clash. Zahn’s Anakin manages to be very true to the character we were given in The Clone Wars and the murderous piece of cardboard we got in the movies. He’s very action oriented, cocky, and self assured, traits that probably spawn naturally when you’re the most powerful Jedi alive. He kind of reminds me of Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk: he’s not so arrogant that you dislike him, but arrogant enough that you laugh when someone punches him in the face.
He also has a clear berserk button when it comes to Padme’s safety and is, I don’t really know how to say this, a little stupid? He tends to walk into traps a lot (a trait he shares with his son) and Thrawn has to save his ass on more than one occasion.
“If Padme was here, and if they had hurt her, her attackers would need to suffer a little before they died”
—Anakin, being entirely reasonable and Jedi-like
Speaking of Thrawn, he is less of an entity in the early timeline than he is in the later one. His main role in the early timeline is as a foil for Anakin. Thrawn is calculated while Anakin is emotional. Anakin rushes but Thrawn moves deliberately. Basically Anakin is almost a one-man battle tank, while Thrawn is more of a special forces commando. Pairing Anakin and Thrawn together helps demonstrate many of Anakin’s flaws as a human being and as a soldier.
The real delight in this timeline though, is Padme. Full disclosure, there isn’t really much deep character work done with her here. What there is, however, is volumes of Padme overcoming obstacles by being extremely competent, intelligent and brave. This might seem like a pretty low bar to clear, but after seeing her spend the entirety of Revenge of the Sith barefoot, pregnant and crying (while all scenes of any kind of substance were cut), it is pretty damn refreshing.
Furthermore, her actions do give us some small insights into her character and I’m all about them. It’s very welcome to see her use her kindness to actually find allies on a hostile planet. She uses subtlety instead of a blaster to achieve her objectives when appropriate. There is a deliberation and thought process there that isn’t really present for Anakin. You see a lot of Leia in her and rightly so, but it’s interesting how she parallels Thrawn a little as well.
When Padme finally meets up with Thrawn and Anakin, it is illustrative that she immediately recognises that Thrawn has an ulterior motive for helping them. Straight away she begins assessing what the implications of this are for their mission and survival. In most novels with Thrawn as a main character, he tends to stand head and shoulders above the other characters in terms of acumen and manipulative ability. In Alliances, Padme stands as his intellectual equal.
The other timeline, set just after season 3 of Rebels, features Thrawn in a more prominent role, this time paired with Darth Vader. Palpatine, sensing force related weirdness sends them into the same system they first met years before to investigate. The main fun here is seeing the interactions between the two. Zahn’s structure of having two parallel timelines also allows information from the past to colour interaction in the future.
Vader is Vader, but you still see the echoes of Anakin in him, especially his lack of patience with Thrawn’s methods and his constant insecurity when he thinks Thrawn might be mocking him. Thrawn, on the other hand, is still shrewd and calculating but instead focuses his intellect on trying to develop mutual respect. Thrawn is more sincerely trying to prove the validity of his viewpoint than manipulate Vader, making a better focus for his character.
“You ask a great deal of trust, Admiral… I will not be mocked or toyed with.”
—Oh Darth, mighty Sith Lord still feels undervalued and condescended to.
Giving Thrawn equals in the form of Vader and Padme is definitely the best choice Zahn makes in the novel. The previous book, while serviceable as an origin story, featured far too much of Thrawn solving problems while everyone looked on in awe. It was just a line of knots for Thrawn to untie with his intellect while the other characters clapped for him. Here at least, it’s a contest to see whether he will win over Vader or Vader will finally lose his patience. Vader, surprisingly, manages to learn from Padme and identify that Thrawn has a hidden agenda this time too. The Dark Lord stops the usually unflappable Chiss in his tracks several times, a refreshing dynamic change from their Clone Wars pairing.
Minor characters like Commodore Faro, Thrawn’s second on the ISD Chimaera and Vader’s second in his stormtrooper strikeforce, Commander Kimmund, also get some POV time. These make nice breaks from the super serious time you spend in Thrawn, Vader/Anakin and Padme’s head. Faro spends most of her mildly worried that Vader is just going to murder her boss and take the ship. Kimmund, meanwhile, fixates on the fact that he’s currently the fourth commander his strikeforce has had. He spends most of the book trying not to give Vader a reason to go all ‘Admiral Ozzel‘ on him. Further cameos from Rebels characters such as Rukh and Vult Skerris help add to the colour of the book and give it the feel of existing within the Star Wars Universe.
“Lord Vader wasn’t going to be pleased. At all. And maybe the squad was about to get its fifth commander.”
—Stormtrooper Commander Kimmund, after a less than stellar day.
Thrawn: Recurring Issues
There are a couple of big issues with this book, despite its fun aspects. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t really talked about the plot of the book in this review and that’s because it’s pretty basic. Find this person, blow this up, take this ship, the plot serves only as a conduit for characters interacting with each other in fun ways. It kept me guessing, but possibly because I didn’t care about it too much? A better plot would have turned Alliances from a good read into a great one. Zahn is a talented writer and I seriously doubt he couldn’t have pulled it off.
The second problem is a one shared with the previous novel: the problem of Thrawn himself. Thrawn just seems like a really nice, reasonable, relatively forgiving, mentor to his crew kind of guy. All available evidence in the text supports this conclusion. He doesn’t blame people for mistakes outside of their control and he always takes the time to explain things to his underlings. He protects his crew from Vader’s wrath and has faith in their abilities. Faro even remarks on how no one in Thrawn’s fleet is engaged in the kind of petty political games of who gets credit for what that others in the Empire tend to play. By the end of the book, I wished this guy was my boss. Just listen to what Commander Kimmund has to say about Thrawn’s vessel:
“None of the senior officers had the self-centredness of men and women looking out solely for themselves, or the deadly inertia of people simply going through the motions. Everyone from Faro down seemed intent on working together to do their jobs and complete their assigned tasks to the best of their ability. The reason was obvious: Thrawn. The Grand Admiral was smart and subtle but never used his brilliance to show up or humiliate anyone. He demanded results but never perfection and had amazing stories of patience for those who were truly working to the best of their ability. He cared about his people, even to the point of standing up for them against powerful men like Lord Vader.”
—Commander Kimmund, describing some kind of employment nirvana amidst the space-fascism
The problem here, of course, is that HE WORKS FOR THE BLOODY EMPIRE! This is a horrific totalitarian regime that implements policies of genocide, torture, repression of basic freedoms, slavery and the building of giant planet killing death machines. It’s really hard to reconcile this nice guy Thrawn with the Thrawn that represents all this and the narrative makes barely any attempt to do it. There’s a few vague references to threats lurking in the Unknown Regions, but beyond that, not a peep.
The previous novel experienced similar issues while Thrawn rose through the ranks of the Empire. In it, there is a sequence where Thrawn’s task force puts down a slave rebellion of Wookies and his second in command presses him on the issue of slavery in the Empire. Thrawn just kind of dodges the question and Zahn never really touches it again. It’s sad because it’s a potentially interesting subject area but the author clearly just doesn’t want to go there.
Even if you’re not totally into the titular character, Thrawn: Alliances still has a lot to offer. Zahn keeps you turning the page with sharp dialogue and interesting interaction between the key characters. It’s just a real shame he didn’t go that extra mile with the plot and with the book’s protagonist.
Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
Frodo and ‘Failure’ at Mount Doom
I am glad that all of you are joining me here today, here at the end of all things (except for the several months and six chapters that we have left to go). But we’ve certainly reached the end of a line if not the line: the Ring is destroyed, Barad-dûr and the Nazgûl have sputtered out, and The Lord of the Rings has made one of the most unique and interesting narrative choices in its whole run.
That Frodo is unable to destroy the Ring when he reaches the Cracks of Doom is both inevitable and devastating. After all, poor Frodo couldn’t even toss the Ring into the fire at Bag End! It would undercut the weight of much of Return of the King and The Two Towers if Frodo were simply able—even after an internal debate— to toss the Ring away. Yet the fact that he cannot, and does not, makes The Lord of the Rings a different sort of story than the classical hero’s journey template into which it is often uncomfortably shoved. Instead, “Mount Doom” is concerned with suffering and its relationship to empathy, the reach of moral limitations, and what happens when someone is forced to surpass them. I don’t think it’s accidental that it’s one of Tolkien’s more unusual moments in his story, and also one of his most intensely Catholic.
Stone and Steel
While you can see “Mount Doom” as the deconstruction of a hero’s journey through Frodo’s arc, there’s also a parallel apotheosis through Sam. Sam has a classic journey: called into a big world beyond his purview and able to overcome the final challenge to his will to stare death in the face and carry Frodo up the mountain. He later will return home, marry his sweetheart, and be MAYOR FOR LIFE. This is something, in a very traditional fashion, that Sam “achieves:” he “wins” through force of his sheer indomitability. Sam’s victory here is not so much rooted in the fact that he maintained hope against all odds—though he does that for quite a long time—but in the fact that when he loses hope, he doesn’t fall into despair. In this sense, he forms a nice thematic bridge to Denethor and Pippin in Book V.
This is an old-hat theme for Tolkien at this point, but it’s given extra weight because of the sheer devastation that surrounds Sam. He considers in a casual way that without the fortification of the lembas bread he and Frodo would “long ago have lain down to die.” The force of Sauron’s power as they delve deeper into Mordor feels like “the oncoming of a wall of night at the last end of the world.” He becomes aware for the first time that even if they do reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring, “they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless, in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.” And aside from all of this, Sam’s closest companion and master is being eradicated, both mentally and physically. He stops speaking almost entirely over the course of the chapter, and when Sam lifts him he is surprised to find Frodo weighing no more than a “hobbit-child.” And yet:
Even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt as through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
It is understandable why Sam is most people’s favorite character in The Lord of the Rings. Despite his limitations he’s loyal and kind. And he’s the aspirational vision of an unbreakable will: that no matter how bad things get, he can keep putting one foot in front of the other in order to save the word. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten very far without his Sam indeed.
Suffering and Empathy
But that isn’t the only story at play here, and it is interesting how closely Tolkien mirrors Frodo and Sam’s opposing journeys. Sam’s ultimate triumph comes on the brink on Frodo’s “failure.” And as Frodo’s experience with the Ring and its accompanying suffering finally strips him of pity, Sam’s own (short) experience grants it to him. These intersecting journeys serve to highlight a much-observed fact about Tolkien’s climax. It is centered on the role of pity and empathy and suffering, of mercy and grace, as the ultimate narrative power (just as Book V prioritized hope and healing over military prowess).
Frodo’s character has always been rooted in empathy, to a point that he is almost idealized (or as Tolkien says, “saintly”). This was only exacerbated by his role as Ring-bearer: his own experiences let him see himself in Gollum, giving the poor creature multiple chances at redemption, beyond the dictates of prudence. Frodo is kind down to his bones. But as the Ring continues to chip away at his sense of self, and as he moves closer to its source of power in Sammath Naur, what had once been a source of empathy and pity simply starts to consume Frodo. He freely admits to Sam that there is no real way in which he could give up the Ring.
And when we as readers get one more glimpse of Frodo in the context of his most dedicated and persistent empathy—in his relationship with Gollum—we see that both ends of the relationship have been utterly decimated by the Ring.
A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet still filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire.
Gollum has been devastated by the Ring’s absence, whittled down to unfettered emotion and desire. Frodo has been devastated by its presence, his own emotions and desires burned out to leave him a sort of husk for power. Frodo is “untouchable by pity,” which means that he is no longer Frodo.
But for the first time, Sam—all the while a counselor of cautious prudence and well-informed distrust of Gollum—finds himself standing in the shoes of his master. “Let us live, yes, live just a little longer,” Gollum cries to him after Frodo leaves him behind for the Cracks of Doom. “Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.” A traditional Gollum argument, and one that Sam has heard before and been less-than-inspired by. But this time things are a bit different.
It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.
“Oh, curse you, you stinking thing!” he said. “Go away! Be off!”
Just as the Ring strips empathy of Frodo it instills it in Sam. Suffering in moderation instills a deeper kindness and understanding in Sam, just as suffering is destroying Frodo mentally and physically (as it had done to Gollum long ago). Sam is the traditional hero. But it’s no wonder, really. Sam is the only character at Sammath Naur who is given suffering in accordance to his capacity.
Frodo’s “failure” is simple and happens quickly. I can’t quite explain to you how much this stunned me when I first read it. Frodo is often denigrated for being a passive hero. I have… little-to-no sympathy for this view. But I do understand the feeling of “wrongness” about it. So often fantasy heroism is about acts of will. This can vary widely in implementation, from toxic-masculinity-inspired murders to summoning some last reserve of magical power, or any variety of means of desperate resistance. Will wins. In this context, Frodo should dig deep inside himself, find one last reserve of power and will and hope. But he doesn’t. Frodo’s story hits its climax when his will is essentially entirely taken away, and he becomes, for all intents and purposes, an instrument. His story peaks in failure.
Tolkien received several letters about this moment over the course of his life (though, by his own admission, not as many as he’d assumed he would). He notes in a 1963 letter to Eileen Elgar that Frodo “indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted.” In another he puts it in more explicitly theological terms: that Frodo “apostatized.” And some readers certainly agreed. Tolkien received a letter shortly after the publication of The Lord of the Rings that excoriated Frodo (and Tolkien himself), insisting that Frodo should not have been honored at the Fields of Cormallen but executed as a traitor.
But Tolkien is also clearly defensive of Frodo, and he insists over multiple letters that Frodo’s practical failure was in no sense a moral failure. The Ring’s power near the end, he writes, would be
impossible, I should have said, for anyone to resist … Frodo undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster, at his own expense, if he could; and also in compete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any way more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been – say, by being strangled by Gollum or crushed by a falling rock. (Letter 246)
He goes so far as to criticize those who show such immediate disdain for Frodo’s experience in a letter to Amy Roland: “It seems sad and strange that in this evil time when daily people of good will are tortured, brainwashed, and broken, anyone could be so fiercely simpleminded and self-righteous.”
Grace and Pity
The choice to make Frodo’s task impossible is an interesting one on Tolkien’s part, and uncommon. Most fantasy drama stems from the seemingly impossible—low odds designed to heighten stakes, but always possible to overcome through enough smarts, faith, or Chosen One Powers. Impossibility seems to only promise two options: failure or deus ex machina, both of which have their share of narrative problems.
Tolkien’s choice of failure, though, is rooted in his conception of grace. I’ve often minimized the role of Tolkien’s faith in his writing. It’s not something I’ve tried to do intentionally, but as someone who doesn’t share his worldview, I often simply don’t find it the most interesting reading of his work. But I do think it’s somewhat unavoidable in “Mount Doom.” Frodo, and the Quest, are of course saved by pity: Frodo spares Gollum, allowing Gollum to be there at the key moment to cast the Ring (and himself) into the fire. This, Tolkien himself notes, is in many ways an “irrational” choice.
At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him and could rob him in the end. To ‘pity’ him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a grace, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing anyone could have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his forgiveness, he was saved himself. (Letter 181)
Note the passive tense. Tolkien’s moral universe—particularly at Mount Doom, but throughout his entire legendarium—is rooted in the idea that people are finite in the powers and potentials and are often extended into spheres beyond their capacity. In this situation, they are both in need of external salvation that they cannot possibly demand or expect, but also empowered: to live the sort of life that places them in a position to receive such grace.
We are assured that we must be ourselves extravagantly generous, it we are to hope for the extravagant generosity which the slightest easing of, or escape from, the consequences of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy sometimes occurs in this life. (Letter 192)
The Lord of the Rings is a passive book in many respects, for all its wizards and wars. It is inherently responsive, and its core thematic thrust refuses any extravagant display of will and power, even for the greater good. Such an act is inherently arrogant for Tolkien, insisting on creative control rather than care and “extravagant generosity” to those around us. Such an act would be an assault on the role of God as Master Storyteller. And such judgement of others would be ass assumption of the role of God as judge:
Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. Their weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal in enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine Nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God. For finite judges of imperfect knowledge it must lead to the use of two different scales of morality. To ourselves we must present the absolute ideal without compromise, for we do not know our own limits of natural strength (plus grace) and is we do not aim at the highest we shall certainly fall short of the utmost that we could achieve. To others, in any case of which we know enough to make a judgement, we must apply a scale tempered by mercy: that is, since we can with good will do this without the bias of inevitable in judgements of ourselves, we must estimate the limits of another’s strengths and weigh this against the force of particular circumstances. (Letter 246)
I have… intensely mixed feelings about this. Tolkien’s view of moral judgement manages to simultaneously be an open-minded philosophy of tolerance and understanding and a terrifying blueprint for debilitating Catholic Guilt. His view of grace and its role in the world both puts a deeply admirable emphasis on the treatment of individuals but also has an inherent hesitation towards any bold challenge to systems and structures. I find it both beautiful and very off-putting.
- “Well this is the end, Sam Gamgee.” It’s not, of course. Not by a bit. It’s the first thing Frodo says as his full self in perhaps the entirely of The Return of the King. He assumes that, the Quest completed, he’ll now be allowed to die: the best-case scenario he’d been envisioning for weeks. He won’t and the rest of The Return of the King will explain the really important question of what that means. As Tolkien notes in one of his letters, Frodo was widely celebrated for his effort and his heroism and “all who learned the full story of his journey.” But he also notes shortly after: “what Frodo himself felt about the events is quite another matter.” I’m looking forwards to exploring this.
- Frodo is aware, before they reach the Mountain, that he is unable to give up the Ring. I do wonder what he thought would happen when he reached the Cracks of Doom. There’s no happy answer to the question. It also makes sense that Sam would not be able to acknowledge and process this possibility, even though Frodo literally tells him it’s the case.
- For all of the jokes at the expense of the Minas Tirith linguist in Book V, we do see here how words and language are such a gift for Tolkien. Sam’s empathetic epiphany towards Gollum remains nebulous and unformed, all simply because he doesn’t have the proper words to express it.
- Prose Prize: I hadn’t really remembered Tolkien’s evocation of Sauron’s fall, but it’s really good. A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as fills, founded upon mighty mountain-throne above immeasureable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled an came foaming down upon the land… And into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgul came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out. I’m really struck but how abstract and tangible it is at the same time. And the description of the Nazgul fizzle out into nonexistence is such a vibrant point upon which to end. I’d like to have written more about this because there’s lots of good stuff but man, this essay is so, so long.
- BUT I also very much like “the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in a consuming flame, but hear fear rose like a vast and black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.”
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien is careful to establish here how Gandalf’s plan is working as well as can be hoped for. As Frodo and Sam make their way to Mount Doom, all of Mordor is emptying out towards the Morannon and the approaching host.
- Very excited for a six-chapter denouement.
Art Credits: All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. Other art, in order of appearance, is from erzsebet-beast and good old Jian Guo.
Grilled Cheese and Goblins is Supernatural Noir with a Delicious Twist
Like supernatural noir and wish it were more LGBTQ+ friendly? Do you enjoy an afternoon of sexy goblins, animated Christmas cookies, and smart-mouthed leprechauns angry about pixies stealing their jobs? Do you ship the grumpy one with the happy one? If any of this applies to you, or you’re just looking for a fun set of short stories to read with gay protagonists and supernatural beings, I highly recommend Grilled Cheese and Goblins: Adventures of a Supernatural Food Inspector (hereafter, Grilled Cheese).
Grumpy and rumpled former chef and restaurateur turned supernatural food inspector Keith Curry won me over from the first slice of cheese. And no, I don’t mean metaphorical cheese—though there is sometimes a bit of camp involved in these supernatural short stories—I mean actual grilled cheese. It’s Curry’s favorite food of course (lol, food puns). This isn’t my first foray into Blind Eye Books’ repertoire, and I was not disappointed.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Vampire Hunter. Leprechaun Fighter. Food Inspector.
Keith Curry has his work cut out for him.
NATO’s Irregulars Affairs Division is a secret organization operating in thousands of cities around the globe. Its agents police relations between the earthly realm and those beyond this world, protecting citizens from both mundane and otherworldly dangers.
Former chef turned NIAD food inspector, Special Agent Keith Curry found out about magic the hard way and is now determined to keep dinner safe for everybody. Includes the novellas “Cherries Worth Getting,” “Magically Delicious” and the never-before-published “Bring Out Your Best” plus bonus shorts and more!
The Good Stuff
Supernatural noir is my brain candy genre; not that it can’t be edgy and dark, only I prefer the kind with a bit of humor about itself. There’s something charming about the culture clash inherent in modern noir detective stories set in a supernatural world with fae, goblins, pixies, and magic. There’s so much potential for banal absurdity too, like in Grilled Cheese’s “The Most Important Meal of the Day,” which sees our protagonist cooking breakfast for a mage to undo the Lovecraftian apocalypse currently destroying the city. Something about making blintzes while a many-eyed monster with blood-red tentacles decapitates people makes me cackle with glee.
Which is to say that the worldbuilding for this series of short stories all centered around Keith Curry is fantastic. The first few paragraphs of the first story utterly immersed and engrossed me. The world felt lived in, vast, yet not overwhelming. As if this world just is and we’re seeing only a tiny corner of it. Author Nicole Kimberling knows how to create a sense of comfort in this world that’s both familiar and different from our own. She’s clearly done her work creating this vision of supernatural reality, yet it doesn’t feel either stale or overly complicated. We know enough details to get us through understanding each of the stories without getting lost. However, I never felt bogged down by exposition or encumbered by explanations. She finds that perfect balance between detailed and info-dumpy.
The tone and ambiance come across right away as well, the noir-adjacent hard-boiled detective vibe yet, once again, without feeling like I’ve seen too much of this before. The stories balance humor with gruesome elements well, and I appreciate that it doesn’t take itself or the genre too seriously. Some of the plot elements can be a bit absurd, but who cares? He’s a supernatural food inspector chasing down contraband pixie dust and extra-human steroids contaminating the supernatural blood supply. There’s bound to be a bit of absurdity to it, and I like that. Like I said, I like some camp with my supernatural crime dramas. Helps balance out the thought of fruit ripening out of human body parts.
Speaking of supernatural noir, it’s nice to see an example of the genre with queer characters that isn’t bait-y. (I don’t kneed to mention the television show I’m thinking of here, you know which one I mean.) And I’m all about characters for whom being queer is just part of their story; they’re not Gay™. They just a food inspector and his hot, strike team goblin boyfriend who work for a government agency focused on “irregular affairs.” I also love that the protagonist is a former chef and his role is tracking down food contamination, which is a unique spin on a supernatural investigator that leads in some surprising directions.
Speaking of characters, they’re excellent. Kimberling writes Keith with a deft touch. Too much cranky, and a protagonist can veer into obnoxious real fast. Keith has just the right amount of cynicism and pessimism to be enjoyable (I always love the ‘grumpy lobster’ characters with hearts of gold, like Toby from The West Wing). Plus, we get to see him change and mellow out a bit over the course of the stories, especially in his relationship with and thoughts about his boyfriend, Gunther Heartman a ‘trans-goblin’ whose physical features had been permanently altered in utero to make him appear fully human (see below).
Gunther, with his optimistic, gentle, thoughtful personality balances out Keith nicely. For characters that on paper seem like tropes (the cheerful one and the grumpy one, e.g.), Keith and Gunther don’t feel like tropes at all. They’re three dimensional, interesting, and fun characters who truly let us see multiple sides of what living in this world is like. There are some truly delightful secondary characters I wish we got more of as well. Johanna, Damien, and Susan from “Bring Out Your Best” were some of my favorites, plus I did wind up enjoying the mage from “The Most Important Meal of the Day” more than I expected I would when I first started the story.
The sex scenes are tastefully done and emotion/romance focused, which is how I like my romance. I read fewer queer male stories than I do queer female stories, and I tend to be less invested in male/male pairings, but this couple utterly charmed me. They’re well-written, engaging, and have great chemistry together. It helps that the stories they exist in are so entertaining, too.
Kimberling’s use of ‘trans-goblin’ for characters of goblin heritage who had been transmogrified in utero to be fully human looking stood out to me as potentially loaded. As a cisgendered woman, I cannot comment on the impact or implications that such terminology would have on the transgendered community. However, I did want to point it out, as it is a major facet of Gunther’s identity and informs the way Keith interacts with and thinks about him.
More than that specific wording, there’s something uncomfortable about seeing a marginalized identity and community correlated with a being whose heritage isn’t just accusations of violence and murder but actual predation on humans. Trans-goblins aren’t the only fae beings given LGBTQ+ coding in the stories, and marginalization of the fae and other supernatural beings frequently functions as an analogy for LGBTQ+ marginalization. I’ve seen such coding before (X-Men, for example), and on the one hand, I understand why so many writers find the analogy appealing. It’s a way to discuss current and historical socio-political and religious marginalization without sounding too preachy.
However, my concerns with it here are the same as when it’s used elsewhere. There’s a double-edged sword in using magical and dangerous beings as stand-ins for marginalized community: it both accurately conveys the fear non-marginalized folks have of LGBTQ+ people and inaccurately, and likely inadvertently, affirms the perceived danger. Humans would have a right to be afraid of beings that drink their blood or feast on their flesh, or have done so historically. Being afraid of mutants who can kill you with a touch, mages who can throw fireballs at you, or superhumans that can crush your skull with two fingers makes sense when you’re a squishy human without powers. That same fear when applied to queer folks or other marginalized communities is unfounded and based in bigotry rather than actual fact.
Because of this disparity, I’m always uncomfortable with stories that situate actually dangerous or historically violent/predatory entities as stand-ins for marginalized communities. Your mileage may vary, and Kimberling’s use of this trope didn’t ruin my enjoyment. Like I said above, I enjoyed this world, these characters, and the stories themselves. This is just something to be aware of going in.
Final Score : 9/10
Note: Since I am not qualified to speak on the issue of the handling of trans-ness or its association with Gunther’s goblin identity, I can only discuss the other elements of the story.
Overall, this series of short stories is an entertaining read. The really short snippets are delightful, though only work in a volume like this one where they have context. I enjoyed each of the mysteries, which were engaging and quick reads. Perfect for an afternoon or to read on commute. As mentioned, my discomfort with associating marginalized identities with dangerous magical beings wasn’t enough to quell my enjoyment. So, in the end, the well-developed characters, a fascinating and well-fleshed out world, and a good balance in tone and ambiance make this series of shorts a winner for me.
About the Author
Nicole Kimberling is a novelist, editor and podcast creator. Her first novel Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other speculative fiction works include Happy Snak, The Sea of Stars and a variety of short stories and novellas. Contemporary works include The Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years. She is the creator and writer of the podcast “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” an audio drama exploring the day-to-day case files of Special Agent Keith Curry as told by his twelve-year-old cat sitter. Prior to becoming a novelist she cooked in restaurants for twenty years and synthesizes her philosophical thoughts about food and cooking in a recurring column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You can contact her @nkimberling69 or www.nicolekimberling.com.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images Courtesy of Blind Eye Books
Mordor, Defiance, and Hope
I was intrigued going into Book VI at how this last leg of The Lord of the Rings was going to stack up in reality versus memory. While I’d always held Book VI to be my favorite, I’ve gotten the impression that that’s not a terribly common opinion. Kate Nepveu over at Tor, for example, associates it largely with an endless slog of long, grim walking. And that is… not wrong! “The Land of Shadow” covers twenty pages in my edition. Most of it consists of a long Despair Walk over Evil Lands. The land is sharp and ugly. There’s not enough food or water. Frodo’s hope meter has dried up entirely, and he powers himself forward solely on a blunt, practical reserve of duty. He assumes he’s going to die. It’s just a matter of giving it a go until then.
It says a lot about the tone of the chapter that within the first page Frodo and Sam dangle off the parapet of the Morgai road and then drop blindly into blackness, not knowing how far they are going to fall. They do this quickly and undramatically. What else could they do? It’s a brutal mirror image of the slow, pained descent through Emyl Muil, so many chapters ago. There, the hobbits nervously creeped over edges, armed with rope and light and rest. Things seemed bad then, ominous and pocked with danger. Here, they simply fall off a bridge into darkness. They make it: they have the luck (“luck”) to fall only twelve feet into a thorn bush. But there’s every chance in the world that they wouldn’t.
And that desperation characterizes the rest of the chapter. Frodo, when he speaks, does so in distracted, short sentences. “Look here, Sam dear lad,” he says at one point. “I am tired, weary, I haven’t a hope left. But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move.” And Tolkien remains pitiless towards his characters. For every instance that he gives them a trickle of bitter oil-water or allows for a “dreary canopy dim light [to leak] into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison,” he also floods the path of Mount Doom with tightly-packed camps. Or he makes Frodo and Sam, after a twelve-mile walk (on hobbit legs!), endure a brutal forced run.
It’s no wonder, throughout this chapter, that Frodo so consistently abnegates himself. He rarely seems to think or feel, simply focusing his energy on the mechanical completion of his task. His personality seems largely blunted out. He cares about their obstacles only abstractly, repeating how unsurprised he is that things are going poorly. And in a particularly frightening moment, he reveals that not only his sense of self but his own past seems to be being stripped away. “This blind dark seems to be getting into my heart. As I lay in prison, Sam, I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now.”
Light and High Beauty in Mordor
It’s disheartening how this sense of loss pervades even the chapter’s moments of relative hope. Sam’s wish for light is granted with an impressive speediness.
Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.
It’d have been easy to make this an obviously triumphant moment. Something akin to the shaft of light illuminating the king’s head at the Crossroads. A new wind blows across the Pelennor, Éomer gets his eucatastrophe, and Aragorn turns the tide of battle. It seems things will metaphorically play out above Frodo and Sam, in that “battle far above in the high spaces of the air.” But there is so much distance. The light that comes is weak and grimy. Even when Tolkien steps in to tell us it’s the fifteenth of March, he chooses the grimmest depiction of what’s happening: Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields. It’s an objective moment of hope, but in the moment it feels… largely useless. Mordor filters the light and the story into its grimmest iteration, like a depressed brain stuck in thought patterns that silence the good and augment the distressing.
It’s even, as per usual in Tolkien, reflected in the landscape. Mordor, Tolkien notes, “was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.” There seems to be some hope in this, especially since it comes on the tail of Frodo and Sam finding a trickle of unpleasant-but-potable water. It could be a moment of resistance, of the land itself fighting back against what Sauron has done to it (in a light parallel to Saruman). But instead, as we get deeper into the landscape, we find that all that has survived is violence.
Coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives.
Beyond that, the orcs and midges in the land have all be marked, branded by a Red Eye. And by the time Frodo and Sam reach the Morannon it is utterly desolate, bereft of any life at all. Over the course of the chapter, what started as apparent resistance is revealed to only be an allowance at best, and an articulation of Mordor itself at worst.
In both cases, moments of potential hope get kneecapped before they can really take hold. There is one moment, though, that seems like it manages to transcend this: when Sam sees a star.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for the moment, his own fate, and even his master’s ceased to trouble him.
This passage was deeply meaningful for Little Katie. I remember re-reading it solemnly the way some people probably re-read the Bible. I was very attracted to the idea that beauty or hope could be a piercing, physical sensation. It always made me feel both hopeful and sad. That’s still there, but I am intrigued by the last two lines, which I hadn’t particularly remembered. The distinction provided here between defiance and hope is a fascinating one to me: the position of the self. Where Frodo’s despair seems to be manifesting in the loss of his own self, Sam seems to find hope in the same thing: in their very transience of their roles in the grand scheme of the story in which they partake. It’s a nice, complex moment, especially given how central individual choice is to Tolkien’s moral cosmos.
- We get our seeding for the return of Gollum next chapter. I hadn’t recalled that Frodo inadvertently saved Gollum’s life here. His mail shirt, discarded on the first day of their walk, was picked up by Gollum and saved him from being killed by an orcish arrow in the back. I think I’m going to wait for our big conclusion next chapter to comment on that. But one of Frodo’s few moments of active choice in this chapter—to discard his mail shirt and sword, under the assumption that he’s done striking blows—saves the being that will ultimately save the mission.
- In a chapter that is decidedly Not Funny, I got a big laugh out of Sam saying “Let me drink first, Mr. Frodo” upon finding a trickle of water. Frodo, vaguely put off about it: “Alright, but there’s room enough for two.”
- It seems a reasonable reading to say that the star Sam sees is Earendil, though Tolkien doesn’t explicitly state it. (Kate Nepveu in the article linked above says Tolkien reveals it in the Appendices, but I haven’t checked). It works either way, both readings adding different kinds of complexity to the story.
- I have been delighted to find out how gossipy Mordor is and how ineffective its propaganda machine is. The orcs on Sam and Frodo’s trail note they don’t even know what they’re hunting for. “First they saw it’s a great Elf in bright armor, then it’s a sort of small dwarf-man, then it must be a pack of rebel Urukhai; or maybe it’s all the lot together.” The defeat of the Witch King of Angmar has also leaked, despite the party line that the War is Going Well. I like this both for the insight that some factions in Mordor are treasonously delighted at the demise of the “Shriekers,” and also because it makes me wonder if Tolkien cribbed some of this from the notorious role of propaganda in World War I.
- Prose Prize: “Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.”
- Contemporary to this Chapter: As you can see right above, it’s Battle of Pelennor Field Day! As far as I can tell this chapter covers March 15-19, reaching the early parts of our other heroes’ march to Morannon. Also interesting, though, is the fact that Sam thinks on Lórien and Galadriel as they were being hit by the second assault of Mordor forces. “If only the Lady could see us or hear us, I’d say to her: ‘Your Ladyship, all we want is light and water: just clean water and plain daylight, better than any jewels, begging your pardon.’ But it’s a long way to Lórien.” Sam sighed and waved his hand towards the heights of the Ephel Dúath, now only to be guessed as a deeper blackness against the black sky.”
- In two weeks: the end of all things! Meet you at Mount Doom.