Saturday, September 9, 2017
A Case of Really Bad Timing
Today I’m going to talk about someone else’s book—specifically, The Black Witch by Laurie Forest, a young adult novel published back in May. I mention the date because it may be significant to what this poor book went through. I’ll tell the story, you be the judge.
I wasn’t going to read this book, probably wouldn’t even have heard of it if I hadn’t come across a discussion about it on a writers’ site. Seems the book, even before publication, stirred up quite a brouhaha on Twitter among readers for what one reviewer claimed was blatant overtones of racism, sexism, homophobia, and all sorts of other mean, nasty things unfit for human consumption. Scathing, one-star reviews began popping up on Goodreads and Amazon. Remember, this was before the book actually came out. Either people with advance copies were passing them around, or the bulk of those bad reviews were coming from people who hadn’t even read the book.
Well, I did read the book, because I like to make up my own mind about things. Rather, I read about half of it, and had to skim the rest because I got it from the library and had to return it before I could finish its 600 pages. Time management issues, remember? I got the gist of the plot and the characters, and read the end to see where it was headed. That’s still probably more than what some of those reviewers who blasted it did.
Plot synopsis: Elloren, a quiet country girl from this thinly-disguised Earth substitute’s ruling class, goes off to University and starts mingling with all the magical races—elves, werewolves, demons, the usual fantasy suspects—she’s been taught are inferior and the enemy. Of course, as she gets to know them as individuals she discovers they’re just people like she is, in spite of the fangs and wings and claws and different-colored skin. (We’re talking mostly blue and purple here. I have no idea what color Elloren is. The book never really says. The only designated white people are elves.) Elloren comes down with a case of Privileged People’s Guilt and becomes a student activist for civil rights against her people’s repressive—and genocidal—government.
Oh yeah, and Elloren’s grandma was the Black Witch who years ago won the war that set all this in motion, and it’s strongly suggested Elloren has her powers but isn’t aware of it. We can see this ending coming from a mile away, can’t we, folks?
That was my real beef with the book. Is it racist? Sure, if that’s how you want to read it. There’s definitely a ton of “othering” going on, and Our Heroine, a member of the privileged class, is destined to become the champion of the oppressed, since the oppressed “lesser” races never seem able to produce a champion of their own and have to rely on their oppressors to cough out a leader for them. At least, that’s how it goes in books like this. I’ve been around for awhile, and I’ve seen this plot before. Many, many times before.
Don’t believe me? Go read Dune. Privileged outsider gets stranded in the desert, becomes the prophesied leader of the native people, and leads his army of the oppressed to victory over the corrupt ruling class. It was written in the ‘60s, and the tale was ancient then.
In fact, that was my take on this book. To me, it read like a fantasy version of a sheltered middle-class girl experiencing college life at Berkeley in 1968. The school has an ROTC program, the protesters take out a military base, and their country’s about to go to war. I guess the elves are supposed to be hippies. Power to the people! Right on!
So how did a book with a plot and characters this hoary get slammed with the racist label even before it debuted? I don’t think it was the book itself. I think it was a case of bad timing.
This isn’t an ebook, it’s print. It hit the shelves in the spring. That means the publisher bought it at least two years ago. It would have been conceived and written well before that. While this book was being written, sold, edited, rewritten and prepped for publication, Obama was in the White House. We had a black President, a liberal outlook, and social change. Gay marriage was legalized. So was pot. Yeah, baby!
Had this book come out in that political climate, I doubt it would have gotten much attention. Maybe some eye-rolls and comments of, “Not this dead horse again.” But right before The Black Witch hit the shelves, the administration changed, and so did our national atmosphere. All of a sudden we have deportations, Black Lives Matter, transgender people barred from military service and the KKK publicly praising the Prez. A book that, last year, would have seemed trite and dated is suddenly scarily relevant.
As for the book itself, now that it’s available to the general public, it’s getting good reviews from people who’ve actually taken the time to read the thing. Praise for its world-building seem to top the list. Okay, I can’t fault it for that, or for the writing itself. It’s not a badly-written book, just, in my opinion, saddled with an ancient plot. A case of been there, done that, read this same story before. Had I read this when I was a teenager, the book’s target age group, I probably would have enjoyed it. Though I would have thought Dune was way better.
I have other bones to pick with The Black Witch, and I’ll get to them at some point in the future. Don’t know when. Time management issues, y’know.