Monday, October 27, 2014

A Hero at the End of the World—Erin Claiborne



"You can leave me well alone. I don't want to change my magic source. I don't want to join any secret societies. I don't want any excitement. All I want in life is to work a minimum wage job, live in my parents' spare room, put on fifteen stone, and have a heart attack before my fortieth birthday." 
For the first time, Archie seemed taken aback. He stared at Ewan with a mixture of pity and disbelief. "That's rather grim." 
"Yeah, well, that's life," retorted Ewan. (19)
I—and by I, I mean my friend Gina—received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book during a panel at GeekGirlCon, which I promptly borrowed. It was described as along the lines of Harry Potter, but more adult and with more diversity. I love Harry Potter, I love diversity, so I was on board.

The story is a take on the "chosen one" narrative, which seems to be all the rage these days. (And I'll admit, is starting to drive me a little bit crazy.) Thinking in Harry Potter terms, what if Ron Weasley had killed Voldemort, rather than Harry Potter killing him? This is the scenario presented in this book, with Ewan Mao and Oliver Abrams. It was foretold that Ewan Mao would destroy Duff Slan, the big evil in their magical world. But by the time Ewan gets up the gumption to enter the final room in the grand battle to slay Slan, he finds his bestie Oliver over Slan's body. Flash forward to five years later when former-slayer-of-Duff-Slan Ewan is working in a coffee shop, feeling not a little resentment and as though his former best friend has stolen his life. Oliver is a successful member of the magic police, moving quickly up the ranks, remembered always as the slayer of Slan. When Ewan is approached by a member of a fringe magic faction called Zubernegativum and told that he can exact some revenge on Oliver, Ewan jumps at the chance, consequences be damned. And oh boy, are there consequences.

I've never experienced my best friend stealing my destiny, but I still totally related to Ewan's misanthropy and general disgust with the world, as represented by the quote above. I appreciated the human, flawed ways that the characters dealt with events. I love (almost) everything Harry Potter, but I do think that sometimes the emotions and reactions of the characters were watered down, especially when it came to interpersonal conflict between characters other than good versus evil. Ewan's feelings of resentment and envy towards the friend who he feels stole his life are emotions that even the most evolved human beings struggle with regularly, I think. Ewan is struggling with the reality that, despite what was foretold, he's actually an average person and has been coasting through life on the expectation that he is going to be a hero. It would be difficult to go from exalted hero one day to less than nothing the next.

While I agree that this book has more diversity when it comes to race and sexual orientation—which I greatly appreciated—one of the things that I always really admired about the Harry Potter series was the unapologetic way that J.K. Rowling killed off characters.  I find this even more admirable in a world that is full of magic, and yet still has to deal with the reality of death. It would have been very easy in a young adult series to "save" folks from that, and Rowling almost never took the easy way out. And in this book, nobody died. Okay, that's not precisely true; none of the protagonists died. (A couple of the villains did die, admittedly.) There seemed to be no real consequences for these characters at the end of the day.

Beyond that, I enjoyed the premise that each magical person has a certain limited amount of magic and when they spend it, that's it. This went along well with the theme of a more grown-up facing magic world, mirroring the choices that we have to make every day about our finite resources. I also loved seeing the alternate realities that appeared while they were utilizing the Baahl, and discovering what life-threatening entity might exist in each one.

I find this recent slew of books with "chosen one" narratives a bit exhausting at times. I think that these themes do tap into something inherently human in all of us: wanting to feel as though we're special and unique and important. Who doesn't want to feel that way? However, personally, I would rather feel that I'm special and unique and important because of the things I do and the choices that I make. If I was a "chosen one," I would spend time worrying about what was more integral to my success: some gift or destiny over which I had no control, or the fundamental traits and values that form my person. But I'm a classic overthinker, so maybe that's just me.