Book Thoughts: Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

I have an idea for a short story; the premise is an innkeeper is tired of heroes tramping through his part of the countryside on their way to yet another world shattering showdown with yet another magic-wielding villain. The line between good and bad is besides the point; when the cost of saving the world is to scorch half of it, it seems that the tension isn’t between the good and bad, but between those who have powers and those who have not. My story would simply be a monologue, with the old man just tired of cleaning up the common room and making sure his daughter does not catch the wandering eyes of the heroes. I guess it could also be summed up as Occupy Middle Earth.

The well of this idea comes from how I see sorcerors and wizards. I think they have an element of the technological Singularity, despite authors treating power magicians as like us, but with more power. Alien, in the fantasy world, tends to look like Sauron – they are recognizably ambitious, power hungry, and selfish. I haven’t really seen magic approached in the same way as hard Artificial Intelligence, in an analogous way to Charles Stross’s Eschaton series (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise) or Accelerando. I haven’t seen enough written about magicians as being so different that they might as well be from other worlds; instead, we get absent minded old men whose heads are on “serious matters”.

And while we are on the subject, I find it unrealistic (ha!) in fantasy stories that, even if we accept the premise of these authors (and of course I am not disputing that part of suspension of disbelief), it seems strange that, by accident, those who tamper with such powers haven’t rent the world asunder. I am not quite complaining about the contrived plot devices, where the Evil Magician requires some long lost trinket to seize ultimate power. But confrontation happens to scale linearly, not exponentially, despite there being no real reason against it. For example, we wouldn’t expect a firefight in a Tom Clancy novel to escalate from knives to guns to rockets and then nukes. The problem is that generally, there is no such inherent, infrastructure based constraint on magic use. Each magician has the potential to be a nuke.

The solution is a trope. The magician hero is usually a neophyte. The exploration of the mechanics of magic is part and parcel of the fun in a fantasy novel, but I haven’t seen a compelling reason for why the magic the hero uses at the final showdown could not have been used sooner. Aside from the contrivance of the magician having to learn that particular skill or spell.  I think another reason is literary: the audience can relate to the neophyte, since the fantasy novel is an escapist-empowerment fantasy. We want to have the option of imagining that we can get that power. And so we don’t really get novels from the point of view of Gandalf. We follow the Hobbit, in this case a literal small person.

This is interesting, because the experienced wizard is generally relegated to a teacher and mentor role. The fact that authors generally choose someone less powerful or less experienced suggests that they do see a disconnect between the audience and if the story was explicitly about someone much more powerful. Why not carry this through and treat the all powerful magicians as something with motivations that we can’t comprehend? Instead, we generally get a dotty, absent-minded old man.

The other approach is to make the magic more mundane and familial, as in Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. At heart, this novel plays out like a family drama, albeit with a bit more of smoke and mirrors. The story starts with Nora, (yet another) dissatisfied graduate student working on her dissertation, whose life seems to be at a low. Her adviser is no help, and her ex had unceremoniously “traded up” and is now engaged to Nora’s replacement. She decides to lose herself in the festivities of a friend’s wedding in the Hamptons. Nora passes through a crack in our world and finds herself in Ors.

What I liked about this book is that it is so intimate. Our first introduction to Ors is through the group of beings known as the Faitoren (as we find out later.) They are beautiful, glamorous, sexy, and carefree. Just the type to seduce Nora to a life of dissipation. However, it isn’t long before the veneer cracks, and we find the group exposed for what they are. Naturally, Nora is rescued by a wizard – Arundiel.

What follows next is positively domestic. The setting here is medieval, with the attendant relegation of women into subservient roles. Nora is a stranger in a strange land; to fit in, she begins serving as a help to Arundiel’s houseservant. We learn about the world in, I think, a realistic pace. I think one could argue it is slow, I enjoyed learning about Ors by seeing how Nora interacts with the world. We see Arundiel perform sorcery, but for a long time, Nora remains skeptical about the things she sees. For almost half the book, Nora has no powers. We actually see her cleaning the kitchen, learning to read, and trying to stay out of trouble.

No such portal fantasy could be complete without a ball. Arundiel, who holds land but is naturally has higher stature due to his power and experience, must attend court and wished to take Nora with him, if only to marry her off and have Nora out of his life. Once the costume party is past, the novel begins in earnest. It seems that Nora, in her time with the Faitoren, actually was married to one of them. Nora was to be a broodmare, and frankly, it is positively quaint how even the monsters did not want a child out of wedlock.

In the second half of the novel, we begin to see the martial nature of Ors: the Faitoren have power, but the humans and Faitoren have a treaty, enforced by the magic of Arundiel. The Faitoren generally accomplish their feats through magic enhanced beguilement; they want to leave their enclosed space and rule the world. With this promise of an eventual showdown, Nora begins to learn magic. We begin to explore the limits of magic and also find out why Arundiel and Ilissa, leader of the Faitoren, bears such ill will towards each other. (Hint: the reason would fit right into a soap opera.)

As I had said at the beginning, we generally find a linear progression in the types of magic being used. The neophyte eventually taps into great power. We seem to avoid that here. One thing Ms. Barker does well in her novel is to keep the scale small. For example, a large battle is comprised of a few hundred combatants. In this context, Arundiel is powerful, but not ludicrously so. In general, the magic Arundiel used at the end was similar in scale and magnitude as what he showed in the beginning. In this sense, I think Ms. Barker avoided that common pitfall of simply cranking up the stakes at each and every confrontation between Ilissa and Arundiel.

The book is set up for sequels, and it is a slight problem because it’s so obvious. Or, alternatively, one can look at it as a set of dropped plot threads at the end. But there are so many nice touches: how Nora’s frustrated ambition and struggles translated into a medieval setting, how she applied small bits of magic to earn money, and how she gave voice to basic ideas about how language can easily be used as a tool to weaken social standing of outcast groups.

I really enjoyed this novel, as it provided some balance to the more conventional, and muscular, points of view that I’ve seen in the fantasy genre. I came across an essay at the New York Times by Ms. Barker that shows how differently she thinks about magic as used in fiction. While the novel might not break free from normal dramatic tropes (Nora loves to compare Arundiel and Ors society to Pride and Prejudice), it does offer a different take in the fantasy genre as well as being a fun read.

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